Does this mean anything to you?

In the past, I have discussed strange sentences like garden path sentences and Moses illusions. These sentences, while strange or inaccurate in some way, are ultimately grammatical. I find sentences like these particularly fascinating because they push the limits of what our brains will tolerate while reading. There is another type of sentence I encountered recently that seems innocuous at first, but as I researched more I was blown away by how widely studied this particular sentence construction is. For an example, take a look at this tweet from Dan Rather from back in 2019 and see if you can notice what is going on.

This sentence makes zero sense. If you read it quickly though and don’t overthink it, you might just convince yourself that it does! Look at the replies for instance. The overwhelming majority of the replies have completely missed the fact that this sentence is poorly formed and have assumed that the main point of this sentence is that the presidents English is not very good. This tweet is attempting to form a comparative between two groups of people in different dimensions of comparison, making it ungrammatical.

To visualize this, let’s break it down into two halves. “I think there are more candidates on stage who speak Spanish more fluently…” – Okay, so here he is setting up a comparison where we are looking at a quantity of people. “…than our president speaks English.” – but he finishes the statement off with a statement regarding how well the president at the time could speak English. He is trying to compare a number of Spanish speaking people to the fluency of another’s English. Even as I write this, I am having a hard time describing exactly what the sentence is “trying” to say, but I think we can all agree that it makes no sense whatsoever.

What exactly are sentences like this called? These sentences are called comparative illusions (the sciency name) or Escher sentences (the more fun name). The name Escher sentence comes from the famous artist M.C. Escher, who’s famous Penrose stairs illusion involves a staircase that looks normal on the surface, but ultimately go no where and cannot function like a normal set of stairs. Honestly, if there were an award for naming things, this would absolutely win because I cannot think of a better fitting description than that. These sentences seem completely fine, until they’re not and then you are just left to stand back and wonder what the heck is going on. The stereotypical example used widely for this phenomenon is a little easier to spot:

  • More people have been to France than I have.

Again, we see a sentence that is trying to compare two separate ideas in a single sentence. In a sentence like this one, we are presented with a set of individuals in the first clause (more people), but when we get to the second clause (I have), we discover that there is no such set of individuals with which to draw a comparison.

To be clear, this is not an issue of plurality in the second clause. The sentence “More people have been to France than we have” is equally awful.

The most striking thing about these sentences is that people will not report any sort of weirdness on first glance. It’s not until you take a longer look and try to determine exactly what is being said that you start to notice what is going on.

So, what exactly is going on then? Well, as is the case with a lot of linguistic weirdness, there is no way for us to be able to know for sure. Some researchers have tried to argue that, like I mentioned above, the sentence is trying to use two templates for comparison which are fine in isolation. It is only when you combine them in the same sentence that things start to go awry.

Think of it like this. Here I will present you with two true and grammatical sentences:

  • John is too tired to drive his car safely.
  • John has driven for as many hours as Tim has.

These sentences both being true does not allow you to blend them together into a third sentence like so:

  • John is too tired as Tim has.

Now this is just a bad sentence and not an Escher sentence in the slightest. Let’s try to apply this same sort of logic to an Escher sentence though:

  • More people have gone to France than I could believe.
  • John and Mary have gone to France more than I have.
  • More people have gone to France than I have.

It could also be the case that our brains are noticing that there is deleted material at the end of this construction that we expect to be there because we see sentences like that all the time. Take this sentence for example:

  • Sally ate some pizza and Amanda did too.

This sentence is completely fine and our brains don’t struggle with it at all because we can infer that the “did too” in this case means that Amanda also ate some pizza. So with an Escher sentence, when we encounter the end of it “… than I have.” our brain might just be saying “oh I can fill in the blanks here” and because we have some working examples to reference, we think it all makes sense and we call it close enough.

All of these theories have been hard to prove in the past and there hasn’t really been a concrete solution as to why we are seemingly unperturbed by these horrible sentences. I’m curious to know what other people think of these so if you have any theories about them, or if you want to try to convince me that they are ultimately fine, let me know down below.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


Voice is stored in the vocal folds

I have talked a lot about voiced sounds in previous posts, but I have been ignoring one cool thing that you can do to trick your brain into hearing something unexpected. Before we can get to that though, I need to teach you about voice onset time.

Voice onset time (or VOT) is a phonetic measurement of how long it takes for voicing to start after a stop is released. When you are articulating a stop, you are using either your lips (for [p] and [b]) or your tongue (for all other stops like [t] [d] [k] and [g]) to completely cut off the flow of air momentarily in speech (hence the name stop). The stoppage of airflow in a stop occurs at the beginning of the sound which leads to an air pressure buildup behind the lips or tongue that is audibly released when the sound is produced (this is called the release burst). If you have a word with a stop at the beginning of it like “dog”, we can measure the amount of time between when the stop is released (when air starts flowing again) and when the vocal folds start vibrating again. This does require using some audio analysis software (Praat) to see clearly, but here is what it looks when I say “dog”.


You can see on the left side of this wave form where there is no sound. This is because my tongue is placed against my alveolar ridge and there is no air or sound coming out yet. The dark black line at the left edge of the highlighted region (in pink) is the point where my tongue releases from that position and the air begins to flow out producing sound. This is not when the vocal folds start vibrating though. That point comes approximately 15 milliseconds later (shown at the right side of the highlighted area).

This 15 millisecond VOT is slightly higher than average. The average VOT for voiced stops like “d” in English is anywhere from 0-10 milliseconds.

Now take a look at this recording of me saying the word “tag”.


Visually, you can see that the VOT for “tag” is much larger coming in at about 103 milliseconds. Again, this is higher than the expected average of about 30-40 milliseconds, but we can chalk this up to the productions being recorded in isolation with careful and purposeful speech.

If I record the two words together in a spoken sentence like “the soldier is wearing dog tags” it becomes a little closer to the expected averages as seen in this third image here.

“The soldier is wearing dog tags”

What is making the VOT so much larger for a “t” compared to a “d”? The “t” sound in English is a voiceless stop meaning that the consonant itself is articulated with the vocal folds spread so they do not vibrate. So, when we are measuring the VOT of a voiceless sound, we are measuring the time from when the stop is released to the beginning of the voicing from the adjacent vowel (all vowels are voiced). Contrast this with a “d” sound which is voiced stop meaning that the vocal folds are pressed together so that they vibrate during the actual consonant sound. With a voiced stop, we are measuring the time from when the stop is released until the vocal folds begin vibrating because of the consonant itself. We always expect voiceless stops to have a larger VOT than voiced stops for this reason and this is universal for all languages.

So is that all there is to VOT in English? It turns out that we have two types of voiceless stops in English. The one that you get will depend on the surrounding environment. Let’s do a little demo and you will see why I mean.

Place your hand in front of your mouth and say the word “stop”, and then, with your hand still in place, say the word “top” (Pandemic note: masks do interfere with this demonstration and will need to be removed for full effect). You will feel that when you say the word “top”, there is a significant puff of air that hits your hand compared to when you say the word “stop”. The burst of air is called aspiration, and in English, voiceless stops that appear at the beginning of a stressed syllable will have aspiration if they are the first sound. When we transcribe these aspirated stops in the International Phonetic Alphabet, we will use a superscript “h” to denote this aspiration [th].

In a word like “stop”, we have a voiceless unaspirated stop and these will have a VOT that is shorter than the aspirated version, but still longer than voiced stops like a “d” sound. Taking a look at one final recording of mine, when I say the word “stop” my VOT comes out at about 23 milliseconds.


For English speakers, we don’t care about this distinction between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops. Both of these are just considered “t” sounds in our language. This is evidenced by the fact that you probably didn’t know about this difference. More importantly, if you say the word stop, but you put a lot of effort into really making sure that you get as much aspiration as possible on the “t”, it is still just the word “stop”. Nothing will change about the meaning of it.

This is not the case for all languages. Let’s take Armenian for instance. Armenian has a three way stop contrast where using a voiced stop, a voiceless unaspirated stop, or a voiceless aspirated stop in a word can change the meaning of it. An example from a 2003 paper states that the word transcribed as [baɹi] (the upside-down r is just a regular “r” sound) means ‘good’, the word [paɹi] means ‘dance’ while the word [phaɹi] refers to the first fruit that a tree bears. (Hacopian, N. (2003). A three-way VOT contrast in final position: data from Armenian. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 33(1), 51–80.

I think this is a really cool distinction that shows just how important language really is. Something as simple as how much aspiration you use to say a word can have a huge impact on the meaning of it. There are even some languages that will go the extra mile on their voiced stops and have what is referred to as pre-voicing. Pre-voicing means that the vocal folds will start vibrating before the stop articulation is released meaning that the VOT of that sound will end up being negative. This is a phenomenon that is observed in some Southern African languages such as Taa and !Kung.

And now for one last cool thing I can show you before I close out. Check out this video of a quick auditory illusion.

This is again, me saying the word “stop”. But if you notice from the second time it is played, when the “s” part of it is cut off, it sounds a little bit like a mixture between “top” and “dop”. This confusion you may be experiencing comes from the fact that a voiceless unaspirated stop is closer in VOT to a voiced stop than it is to a voiceless aspirated stop that we would expect at the beginning of the word “top”. Our brain wants to hear the word “top” and will ultimately recognize it as such, but there is this brief moment of ‘wot in tarnation’ that our brains go through first because we are pretty sure that might be a ”d”, even though “dop” is not a word.

Anyway, I am going long again, like usual. Thank you so much for sticking with this long-winded post. I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

The rules of conversation

Happy New Year everyone. It feels good to get back into a rhythm of writing these posts now that I have a bit of free time on my hands again. I wanted to start off 2022 talking about… talking I guess. Something that we do everyday! The subtle art of conversation.

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Conversations can be hard to wrap your head around. If you take a step back and really think about it, the fact that we can have a string of interconnected thoughts and shared ideas with another person is pretty amazing. If I say one thing, that will probably make you think of a different thing and you will say that thing, which will lead to me thinking of a response that I say, and so on until we both run out of things to say!

So, what allows us to be able to talk like this forever? Surely, there must be some sort of insight into how conversations work from a logical standpoint. Well, it turns out that there is a whole field of linguistics that cares about this exact thing known as pragmatics. Pragmatics studies the use of language in social settings as well as caring about the relationship between the interpreter and the interpreted.

A key part of pragmatics is built upon something known as the cooperative principle. The cooperative principle was developed by a linguist named Paul Grice back in the late 1970’s and essentially served to describe how and why people will behave in certain ways while conversing. I wanted to take the time today to talk about this principle, provide some examples, and maybe give you a little bit of insight into why you converse the way you do.

The cooperative principle is divided into four maxims (or rules) which are known as the Gricean maxims. These four maxims are not infallible rules and can certainly be broken in a conversation. The idea is that in a normal conversation where we are actively engaging the other person and trying our best to be clear in communicating our ideas, provided they are doing the same, these are the set of principles that we are both following when speaking our own thoughts and interpreting the others.

The first maxim to talk about is the maxim of quantity. This rule dictates that all utterances should only be as informative as they need to be. In other words, you should aim to make your contribution contain only the necessary information for the situation and not contain superfluous information. An analogy that Grice uses in his book to describe this situation relates this maxim to repairing a car where he says: “If you are assisting me to mend a car, I expect your contribution to be neither more nor less than is required. If, for example, at a particular stage I need four screws, I expect you to hand me four, rather than two or six”.

Automotive analogies aside, how would this play out in an actual conversation? If you are talking with a friend and they ask you “What day are you flying home for Christmas?”, it would be sufficient to say “Thursday, December 23rd”. You could also include the time into this if it was relevant (say, if this friend was picking you up), but it would likely not be necessary to specify the year that this was taking place. Your conversational partner would likely be able to figure out that you are both talking about this years Christmas and stating the information outright would be redundant.

The next maxim is the maxim of quality, which states that the contribution you are making must be truthful. This means that you should not say things which you believe to be false, and you should also not say things which you lack true evidence for.

For a simple and safe example, let’s go back to grade school for a second. Do you remember being a kid, and someone on the playground would tell you something about how they have “an uncle that was on the Titanic” or “a dad that works at Nintendo”? Looking back on it now, it is plain to see that they were obviously lying about something like that, but when you were a kid, you might have believed them at least a little bit. This is the maxim of quality at work!

Those kids that told those tall tales were violating this maxim and providing knowingly false evidence, but you were likely to believe them because of that same maxim. You were just a kid; you didn’t know any better. Why would these other kids be lying to you? Surely their uncle must really have survived being on the Titanic and caught up with his Nintendo employed brother and the pair of them acted as the inspiration for the Mario Bros.! This example really gives you a sense of how these maxims work, and what happens when one party is actively violating them.

The third maxim is the maxim of relevance which simply boils down to the idea that any information you are providing should be free of any irrelevant information. We can return to our flight example for this. If your friend asks you when you are flying home for Christmas, you probably don’t need to tell them what jacket you are planning on wearing to the airport.

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This is not to say that this information is not vital at some point in time. For instance, if they are planning on picking you up from the airport like we had discussed earlier, it might be useful to know what colour jacket you have on to find you. But at this point if they are asking you when you are flying home, and the flight is not for a few weeks, telling them about the jacket is not relevant.

The final Gricean maxim is the maxim of manner (or clarity). While the other three maxims care about what is being said, this final maxim is more focussed on how things are being said. To put it simply: be brief, avoid ambiguity, and be orderly.

Having to re-read and edit many of my own posts over the past six months, this is likely the maxim I need to work on the most! If I could say it in as little as 5 words, why am I dragging my feet and adding in all these silly extra words to say it in 50 instead? Or perhaps it is the complexity of my communication which needs to have its intensity decreased for the easement of my fellow linguistics enthusiasts.

This last paragraph sums up violations of the maxim of clarity. It all just boils down to the simple principle that many high school English teachers and writing instructors have been saying for years. Be clear and concise. There is not much else to say on this one (nor should their be).

And that wraps up my first post of 2022. Hopefully now you have a little better insight into how conversations function on a higher level. This one was a bit out of my comfort zone because I don’t work in this area a lot, but I had a lot of fun writing it and thinking about it, so I hope you liked it too! I have been working away now and I have so many interesting things to share with you all now so I hope you will come back next week for more. As always, if you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

The anatomy of speech

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Have you ever thought about how you talk? I don’t just mean the way that you say certain words, or maybe the fact that you slur your words after a few too many drinks. I mean HOW you talk. The anatomy of the mouth and the way that your tongue does such quick and precise movements is truly fascinating. I also want to issue a pre-emptive apology because if you are anything like me, after reading this you will spend way too much time being aware your tongue. But enough of the preamble, let’s just get into it.

If you think about it for too long, tongues are just gross muscular things in our mouths. We use them when we eat to move food around in our mouths and to get food that was trapped between our teeth free, and of course they are primarily responsible for tasting. An often underappreciated function of tongues is their involvement in speech. This is not to say that tongues are essential for all speech, but they play a major part in the formation of both consonant and vowel sounds.

For reference, of the 23 English consonants in the International Phonetic Alphabet, only 7 of them do not directly involve the tongue. But this is just a little taste of what is to come. For now, lets talk about all of the things we need to classify a sound. When it comes to identifying a sound, there are three things we need to consider: voicing, place of articulation, and manner of articulation.

Voicing is not something that involves the tongue at all, but it is something that we have talked about previously. As a reminder, voiced sounds are produced with your vocal folds being held close together so they vibrate when air passes through them. You can feel this in a word like “zit” by placing your fingers on your neck as you say it. Compare this to a word like “sit” which has a voiceless sound at the beginning. Voiceless sounds are produced by keeping your vocal folds spread open so that there is no vibration.

Moving up from the vocal folds, let’s get back to the tongue. We will begin talking about the tongue by discussing the different places of articulation. The places of articulation are mostly self explanatory with names like inter-dental (between the teeth) and bilabial (involving both lips), but the one we will discuss first deals with the “s” and “z” sounds we have discussed previously. These sounds are classified as alveolar sounds, meaning that they are articulated with the tongue at a place in your mouth known as the alveolar ridge. The alveolar ridge is just behind your upper front teeth and if you feel around with your tongue, you can feel a small protuberance where the roof of your mouth raises slightly. The diagram below shows a mid sagittal cross section of an oral cavity which shows the alveolar ridge, and all of the other places of articulation in the mouth.

Places of articulation

Not all of these places involve the tongue as we previously discussed. All bilabial sounds like “b”, “p” and “m” are produced with only the lips and the tongue is not involved at all. Sounds like “f” and “v” combine two articulators (the teeth and the lips) to produce sound and these are known as labiodental sounds which, again do not use the tongue.

Before we move onto the manner of articulation, I want to talk about “r” for a second. “r” is a unique sound in English because it can be produced in two different ways depending on how you move your tongue. So now is when I ask you, are you a buncher or a curler?

To figure out whether you are a buncher or a curler, there is a simple test you can do. Go grab a toothpick or something similar that you are comfortable putting in your mouth and just poke your tongue as you are producing an “r” sound. If the thing you are poking is the bottom of your tongue, congratulations, that means you are a curler. If you are poking the top, then also congratulations, you are a buncher.

It turns out that an “r” sound can either be produced by curling your tongue tip back toward the rear of your mouth, or by just bunching up your tongue blade toward the back of the tongue. It is important for speech language pathologists to know about this so they can be prepared to teach techniques for both of them. There is no advantage or disadvantage to either technique, bunchers and curlers can both produce “r” sounds just fine.  This is just a weird quirk of our bodies that we can observe.

Now back to the different sounds. Let’s talk about manner of articulation. Manner of articulation deals with the finer aspects of the tongue and how it directly impacts the airflow in the oral cavity. For example, lets return to the “s” and “z” alveolar sounds that we talked about earlier. These sounds are known as fricatives because they are produced by having the tongue very close to the place of articulation, but not touching it so that there is a small amount of space between them that results in a small amount of frication in the airflow, hence the name.

So now think about a sound like “t” or “d”. These sounds are both alveolar sounds as well, but they are produced by having the tongue touching the place of articulation and momentarily stopping the airflow entirely. Unsurprisingly, these are called stops. Now what about a sound like an “n” or an “m”. When you produce these sounds, you are producing them like you would a stop, but you can feel a little bit of reverberation in your sinus as you are producing them. These sounds are nasal stops, and they are produced by lowering the velum at the back of your oral cavity which allows the air to flow into your nasal cavity and resonate like that.

The amazing thing about all these actions is that they are not things that you actively need to think about to do. In fact, you probably put zero thought into how this works until you read this post. Our bodies can do all of this effortlessly and automatically.

As always, this is just a brief overview. We don’t have time to get into all the different places and manners of articulation. We will likely return to talk about more unique language sounds (like clicks), but for now, I think this is a good place to leave it.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

When you can’t see the sentence for the trees

Syntax is the greatest subfield of linguistics and I say this as a syntactician with absolutely zero bias (wink wink). The field of syntax cares about the ordering of words in a sentence, and the operations that took place to create the word order known as the derivation. The thing that I love about syntax is that is basically a series of math and logic problems. We can take a sentence and work backwards from it to learn how it was constructed. Now before everyone panics about the fact that I am trying to equate math and language lets all just take a deep breath and I will walk us through how a syntactic derivation works.

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Before we start talking about full sentences though, we need to start a little bit smaller. We will start by talking about verbs. A verb, as you already know, is an action word that tells us what happened, what is happening, or what will happen depending on the tense used. Think of the verb in a sentence as the conceptual seed of a sentence. There are three major verb types that we will talk about today that are separated based on how many arguments they have. These verb types are transitive, intransitive, and ditransitive.

When you picture a basic sentence with a subject, a verb, and an object, you are likely picturing a transitive verb. Transitive verbs are verbs that have two obligatory arguments (the subject and the predicate). What this means is that the information contained in a sentence with a transitive verb includes: an action (the verb itself), the thing that is doing the action (the subject), and the thing that the action is happening to (the predicate). For instance, you can take the verb ‘discuss’ as a good example of a transitive verb. ‘Discuss’ needs at least two arguments (nouns in this case) in order to create a grammatical sentence. This means that you are no able to say something like “John discussed.” or “Discussed the contract.”, you would need to say “John discussed the contract” (Note that you can say “Discuss the contract!”. This is a null subject imperative though and we will talk about those another time).

So, to bring the math connection back around; one way that we can represent sentences like “John kicked the ball.” is by using parentheses. It would look something like this:

                [John [discussed [the contract]]]

Now I am simplifying things quite a bit from how it would actually be represented, but for the purposes of this article it’s good enough. Let’s break down the bracketing so you can see why it is organized like this. In the innermost layer, we have “the contract” which is the thing that is being discussed. This is why it is contained within the bracketing for the verb “discuss” because there is a connection between these two words. On the outermost layer, we have “John”, who is the one that is doing the discussing. “John” has the verb contained within his bracketing because he has the same sort of connection to the act of discussing that the action of discussing does to the contract. Again, this is simplifying things a bit, but I am just trying to explain why we have this embedded bracketing as opposed to something like [John][discussed][the contract] where there is no clear connection between any of the words.

Now, lets branch out to the other verb types. Intransitive verbs are verbs which only have one obligatory argument rather than two. Intransitive verbs are a little bit tricky because they are actually divided into two subtypes, unergatives and unaccusatives. Full disclosure; I constantly get tripped up on the difference between these two because it is subtle and a little unintuitive, but it is my hope that maybe teaching people about it on the internet will also help to clear it up in my head!

The biggest difference between these two verbs deal with whether their subject is semantically an agent or not. If you kick something or hit something, then YOU are a semantic agent in that case because (it is safe to assume) you are doing those things intentionally. Conversely, if you fall, it is not likely that you are doing this on purpose so we can say that you are not the agent in this case but rather that you are the experiencer; the one who experiences the fall.

Unergative intransitive verbs are single argument verbs that only have an obligatory subject (which is a semantic agent) and no obligatory object. I have used the word obligatory twice in this sentence to really drive home the fact that there is a difference between an object that needs to be there and one that does not. Take the sentence “John ate the cake” for example. This sentence has two arguments, “John” and “the cake”, but the fact that it has two arguments does not make it transitive. It is perfectly grammatical and acceptable to simply say “John ate” and leave “the cake” off of it. This is because “the cake” is an optional argument in this sentence, or what we call an ADJUNCT argument in syntax terms. Adjuncts are optional arguments that can be removed without making the sentence ungrammatical.

So we see that a verb like “eat” is a great example of an unergative verb because you only need to specify the thing that is doing the eating, and you are not required to specify the thing that is eaten. Other good examples are things like “run” or “walk” because they are things that require intent and agency to do, but there is no need to specify where you are running or walking to. You can simply just specify that movement is occurring and leave it at that.

An unaccusative intransitive verb is a verb whose subject is not a semantic agent. The best example of an unaccusative sentence would be something like “the tree fell” or “the window broke” because things like trees and windows do not have any agency and are certainly not falling or breaking on their own accord. It is also important to note that unaccusative verbs cannot have any type of object after the verb.

Both unergative and unaccusative verb sentences have simple bracket representations like this:
                [John [ran]]

                [The tree [fell]]

The third type of verb that we will talk about is the ditransitive verb. A ditransitive verb is a verb that requires three arguments (two nouns and a preposition usually) in order to be grammatical. Take the verb “put” for instance. You can’t use “put” as a transitive verb and simply say something like “John put the book”, you also need to specify where the book was put! This is why we would need to make it “John put the book on the table” instead. The labeled bracketing for these ditransitives gets a little more complicated:

                [John [put [the book][on the table]]]

Now keep in mind that these are just simple sentences, but you can imagine as they get bigger and more complex that the labeled bracketing will become very hard to read. Luckily, syntacticians have figured out a more visually pleasing way to represent these sentences that serves the same purpose. Allow me to introduce you to the sentence tree:

John put the book on the table

These trees are drawn with a program known as LaTeX, which is a typesetting used in many scientific and academic settings. If you haven’t worked with LaTeX before, it is hard to describe but it is essentially a halfway point between typing and programming. For example, for this sentence tree above I had to provide LaTeX with a command to draw the tree, and that command makes use of the bracketing that I have been talking about all along. Here is the command that I used:



\Tree [ John [ put [{the book} {on the table} ] ] ]


So essentially, this command is taking the same information that is contained in the bracketing and turning it into a visual representation that allows us to easily see how all of the parts connect without having to count all of the brackets by hand.

Now my biggest fear at this point is that my supervisor will somehow stumble across this post and think less of me for these trees. It is at this point I will remind you that there is SOOOOOOOO MUCH that I am glossing over. I am just trying to give a brief overview of the things that I do so that people like my mom will have a better understanding of some of the things that I do. There are entire four-month university courses dedicated to almost all of the subjects that I talk about on this blog so I can’t talk about them all in detail, but if people are interested, I will certainly keep writing more about it. I am a syntactician at heart and I could go on about this stuff until I pass out, but I don’t want to keep you here forever either.

This is a logical stopping point for this one, but I am sure that I will be returning to syntax again in the future so keep an eye out for that. Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

What is a question?

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For many years I have been a fan of the TV gameshow Jeopardy! I have been recounted tales of when I was two years old, and I would be dancing in front of the television to the Final Jeopardy! music. I haven’t watched it in quite some time now unfortunately (partly because cable is too expensive and partly because I am still not entirely over the passing of Alex Trebek) but for some reason, the show popped into my head, and I started to think about questions.

For those of you who may not have seen the show, Jeopardy! is a trivia gameshow where contestants are given an answer as a prompt, and they then must respond to the host with the question that would generate that answer. It is not as tricky as it may sound though. For instance, contestants would be read the prompt “Snake Island off Brazil’s coast is filled with golden lanceheads a deadly pit type of this snake” and would respond with the question “what is a viper?”

We won’t focus on the other rules regarding the dollar amounts of the questions, the daily doubles, or the wagering in final jeopardy. For now, let’s just focus on the question formation.

In a random survey of 60 Jeopardy! categories from the Jeopardy! YouTube page (the equivalent of 5 games), contestants responded with 185 ‘what’ questions, and 115 ‘who’ questions. Let’s also note that this number may be slightly skewed thanks in part to current reigning champion Matt Amodio who has drawn some heat for his propensity to respond to every prompt with ‘what’s’, even if a ‘who’ would be more appropriate. Just take a listen to his response from the category named Audible (most contestants would respond with “Who is (Matthew) McConaughey?”).

Unexpected responses aside, we do see that using ‘who’ and ‘what’ are the two question words that these contestants are using. This is not mandated by the rules of Jeopardy! in any way. Although I was not able to find examples, there are reported instances of contestants responding with ‘where’ questions. According to the Jeopardy! rules, you are only required to respond in the form of a question. So how can you know for sure if your Jeopardy! response is valid?

The first thing we need to ask ourselves is: what is a question and how is it formed in English? Questions are sentences that are aimed to have the addressee (the person you are speaking to) to provide information. There are several different types of questions that a person could ask, and not all of them are acceptable Jeopardy! responses.

Typical Jeopardy! responses are known as wh-questions. These types of questions use words like who, what, where, when, or why to signal to the addressee what kind of response you are expecting. If you ask a question with “when”, you are likely expecting some sort of response dealing with time. In the same vein, if you ask a “where” question, you would be looking for a place.

The funny thing about Jeopardy! is that even though there are plenty of responses that are formed with place names or specific years, the contestants will use “what” for these questions. There are a few reasons for this. In the case of the place names, using a where would seem a little strange based on how the answers are usually worded. If you asked someone the question “Where is New Orleans?”, you would probably be confused if someone answered with something like “This city was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, y’all” (A Round of Gulf Coast category from June 11, 2013).

The second reason for these “what” questions is that contestants are under a large amount of pressure to perform quickly. If you were on the show, and you were asked to respond to a prompt quickly in the form of a question, it would just be easier to use a default “what” than it would be to stress about whether a “when” or a “where” could apply.

So this tells us “what” a question is, but “how” are questions made? For wh-questions, the sentence is first generated to mirror how the answer would look. So, imagine you had a declarative statement like “The capital of Ontario is Toronto.” To ask what the capital of Ontario is as a question, the initial form of it would be “The capital of Ontario is what?” This is acceptable as it is, although you could imagine someone saying something like this in an incredulous way perhaps (“The capital of Ontario is WHAT?!?!).

Once we have this form of the sentence, the wh-word will move to the front of the sentence and give us the question “What is the capital of Ontario?” What this means for Jeopardy! contestants is that, when faced with the prompt “This city is the capital of Ontario”, it would be perfectly fine for them to answer with a question like “Toronto is what?” This would likely raise a few eyebrows though, and it would be tough to do on the spot. Again, with the pressure these contestants are under, it’s easier to try and keep things simple and consistent.

Another way to form a question is through the process of auxiliary inversion, where the auxiliary verb (can, may, is) is moved to the front of the sentence. These questions are known as yes/no questions because the answer to them is, unsurprisingly, a yes or a no. This type of question is, surprisingly, permitted by the rules of Jeopardy! It would result in seemingly strange question and answer pairings; “Is it Toronto?” is not the type of question that would elicit the answer “It is the capital of Ontario.”

This type of question, apparently, has been used in the past by some contestants. I was unable to track down any physical evidence of this, but it is possible within the rules.

The rules of Jeopardy! (while not explicitly published anywhere) do not require the questions provided by the contestants to be grammatical or to match up with the answer explicitly. The questions are only required to be clearly identifiable as questions.

Questions that present two or more possible options are known as alternative questions. This would be the type of question that you might ask your child at desert time. “Would you like cake, or ice cream?” These types of questions could not be used in a game of Jeopardy! because the goal of Jeopardy! is to provide a question response that would satisfy the answer provided, and the answer to an alternative question is one of the alternatives presented. It would be confusing and difficult to construct an answer prompt that would elicit this type of a question. I also don’t imagine you could convince the judges that “What is Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria?” is a good response to “This female ruler was the first member of the Royal family to live at Buckingham Palace” even though one of those alternatives is correct.

Another question type not allowed in the rules of Jeopardy! is known as a tag question. It is called this because you are adding a ‘tag’ to a declarative sentence that turns it into a question. An example of this would be if you think that Tobias likes jean shorts, but you aren’t 100% confident and you would like some confirmation, so you would say “Tobias likes jean shorts, doesn’t he?” The first portion of the sentence is just a declarative statement (Tobias likes jean shorts), and it is the “doesn’t he” that turns the whole thing into a question.

The response to a question like this would either be true because the initial statement was true, or false for because the initial statement was false. Because of this, it would be difficult to construct a Jeopardy! style answer where the contestant could provide a tag question response. This has not been tried by a contestant, but I cannot imagine it being accepted by the judges.

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A final type of question that would not be allowed by the rules of Jeopardy! is an inflection question. This is done in English, not by using question words or by rearranging the sentence in any way. Instead, these questions are made by raising the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence as if to say “I think this right??” A question like this would not be permitted in Jeopardy! because you are not explicitly forming a question with your statement, you are instead questioning whether the statement that you said is correct.

All of this is not to say that there are no fun ways to bend the rules of Jeopardy! So long as your response is a proper question, you can still respond in some clever, corner-case ways.

For example, if the answer provided was something like “This book series has children around the globe searching crowded malls and beaches for the title character, portrayed in a red and white sweater and toque.” A perfectly acceptable and legal response question would be “Where’s Waldo?” The Jeopardy! team even cites similar instances of this situation that are permitted in this article.

So now we have seen that there are several ways that you can make a question in English, and many of them are permitted in Jeopardy! However, if you ever find yourself on the show, it is likely easier to just stick with the traditional “What/Who is __?” type responses. Under those bright studio lights with real money on the line, it would be a shame for you to make a silly error that get’s your response disqualified just so you could look a little bit clever.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

There’s an elephant in my pajamas!

Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas.

Elephant in pajamas – by: Amy Block

A sentence like this one above has two possible meanings, even though you probably only thought of one. One option is the logical meaning where “I” am the one wearing the pyjamas while the elephant being shot. The other possible meaning is that “the elephant” is the one in my pyjamas last night and that’s why I shot it. Now obviously, this meaning is a bit of a stretch (ha!), but that’s only because it is an elephant that was shot. If you change out “elephant” for something a little more realistic, it is easier to convince yourself of this alternate meaning.

Last night I shot a burglar in my pyjamas.

Here you can likely imagine both interpretations, although it does raise the new question of why is this burglar wearing your pyjamas?

There is also a way that we can modify this sentence so that the “I” subject is likely not the one that is “in” something.

Last night I trapped a burglar in my closet.

Just by changing two words, we have made it so it is most likely the burglar who is in the closet, and not me.

Now obviously these sentences are just one silly example of how changing a word or two can change how we might interpret a sentence, but ambiguous sentences show up quite often in one context quite often.

In a newspaper headline like this, we can see the same kind of ambiguity problem. Namely, there is a prepositional phrase (with knife) at the end of the sentence that could reasonably apply to either the subject of the sentence (the cops), or the direct object of it (the man).

Sentences like these don’t often pose a problem for us because we have out own logic and intuition to rely on. Let’s take it one step further and imagine the effects that this might have on a computer. If a computer were to try and “read” these sentences, what conclusion do you think it would draw?

Computers rely on several processes when it comes to interpreting language, but one of the biggest ones (and the easiest one to explain here) is known as statistical learning. Statistical learning is a process by which you take a large set of data, known as a training set, and feed it to a computer program that reads the data one chunk at a time, and makes note of what comes after each chunk. These chunks can be set to a certain number of words to be processed all at once, known as a window.

If you feed the computer a large enough set of data, you can then ask it to start making predictions (like you see in the predictive text on your phone). The computer is able to make guesses on what is most likely to come next based on how often that combination appeared in the training data that was fed to it. This is where all of the statistical stuff comes in.

This process is all very math heavy and quite hard to wrap your head around, but let’s try and simplify it with an example. Imagine I asked you to fill in the remainder of this phrase:

To kill two birds with one _______.

If you guessed stone, then congratulations! Your internal statistical learning system is working normally. If you put in a word like bullet, you might not be incorrect based on your own experience, it might just mean you are working from a different set of training data from most people and you are not familiar with this idiom.

The idiom “to kill two birds with one stone” is very common in North American English and you have likely seen or heard it so many times that you can intuitively know how to finish it. You can probably think of other examples too where after seeing one word come up, you would know for certain what the next word is.

Computers are working on the exact same principle that you just employed to complete that idiomatic expression, but they are doing it on a much different level than you are. Being able to change the scale of the “window” (how big of a chunk) that they are looking through allows them to notice patterns in language that you or I could never notice on our own.

The biggest problem with this from a computing standpoint is that memory is finite for computers so if you make these windows too big, the computer will not be able to handle it. If you make it too small, you won’t get enough useful data to make good predictions. You were able to easily predict the last word of that idiom because you have a large window and you are able to have access to the entire sentence at once. Imagine you were only able to see something like “with one ___”. It would be a lot harder to make a good prediction with this small amount of information.

Another problem is, computers don’t know the meaning of these phrases that they are reading and predicting. This leads us back to the ambiguous sentences from the beginning of this post.

Imagine you could design a program where you could give a “trained” computer the sentence “I shot an elephant in my pyjamas” and then ask it who was wearing the pyjamas. The computer would likely wrongly assume that the elephant was the one in the pyjamas because more often than not in English, when we have a preposition like “in” after a noun, it is meant to be associated with that nearest noun.

There is a chance that the computer might be tipped off in some way somehow by the fact that they are MY pyjamas though, and because of this first person possessive pronoun would correctly associate them. What about a sentence that only uses inanimate objects and pronouns?

The trophy would not fit in the cabinet because it was too big.

We as humans are able to reason that the trophy being too big is the most likely problem here. But again, the computer would likely make the wrong prediction here because it would want to associate the it pronoun with the closest possible noun in the sentence.

All these sentences can be easily disambiguated to ensure that the computer makes the right choice every time.

I shot an elephant while I was in my pyjamas.

The trophy would not fit in the cabinet because the trophy was too big.

Without any ambiguities the computers will be happier knowing that they can understand the sentences just like we can. All of this is to say that when you are writing, be kind to your computer and make sure that you are writing in clear, unambiguous sentences for their benefit too.

Alternatively, the takeaway might be that we should write needlessly ambiguous sentences to confuse the computers and hope it slows down the inevitable terminator-style uprising. I’ll leave the interpretation of this blog post to you the reader.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive: Not your English teacher’s English

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In my last post, I talked about how it isn’t my job to dictate what happens with a language, or to tell you how language should be used. You may be asking yourself “wait, if linguists don’t make the language rules, then what do they even do?” It’s a valid question, and frankly one that I am still figuring out every day. The best analogue that I can come up with is Dr. Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees.

Dr. Goodall began her career of working with primates in the early 1960’s by observing them from a distance and simply observing their behavior and taking notes. Over time she did interact with them, but it was passive interactions, and it was always led by the primates, never forced upon them. She never tried to walk in and change the way that the chimps lived their lives.

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In this metaphor, while I am implying that linguists act like Dr. Goodall, I am not implying that you the reader are the wild primate. Language is the natural, everchanging thing that we linguists are observing and documenting every day. Some of that may involve studying human behavior and how humans utilize the tools that they have when using language such as their vocal tract, but often, it’s the language itself we are most interested in.

So why do we have grammar classes in school? Well, the ability to communicate in a professional manner is certainly a valuable skill in our society still. After all, without grammar rules and at least some form of writing training, there would be no way for this post to be universally comprehensible.

The approach that your high school English teacher took when teaching you how to write a paper or a poem is what we call a prescriptive approach. A prescriptive approach to grammar is one that seeks to prescribe one system in preference to another. On the other hand, a descriptive approach is one that tries to simply describe human linguistic ability and knowledge.

So why don’t linguists just take a prescriptive approach and tell people how to use language? Well think about that high school English class for a second. Sure, you probably learned how to write in an active voice as opposed to a passive voice. Maybe you even learned how to read into metaphors and how to interpret poetry. The things you learned in that class likely don’t make their way into your everyday life in all those ways though. When you are out casually talking with your friends, you probably aren’t sitting there telling them that they should stop ending their sentences with prepositions (at least I hope not).

When it comes to trying to dictate language change, it’s a bit like trying to paddle against a strong current. You probably aren’t going to get very far, and its likely way more fun to just sit back and see where the current takes you. This is the approach that linguists take to language. Rather than trying to force a system to behave a certain way, we choose to observe, document, and unravel the natural changes as they happen. Even small changes to a language can lead to massive amounts of research and a new understanding of how languages around the world adapt.

So the next time you want to yell at your friends about whether it’s “to who” or “to whom” they are speaking with, just sit back and think about why they are saying it that way rather than telling them right versus wrong.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

It’s raining outside, but what is “it” all about?

It is raining outside.

It seems to be raining outside.

There appears to be a rainstorm blowing in.

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Apart from talking about some gloomy weather, these sentences also share another common thread. Think about the subjects of these sentences. What does “It” mean? Where is “There”? Why do we even need them in these sentences?

These types of pronouns are known as expletive pronouns (no, not those kind of expletives, that’s for another post). These expletive pronouns, also known as pleonastic pronouns or dummy pronouns, act as placeholders in languages that have a strict requirement for subjects. English is a language that really wants to have a subject, regardless of whether that subject actually means anything. Compare the examples above to these sentences:

Is raining outside.

Seems to be raining outside.

Appears to be a rainstorm blowing in.

Just reading these sentences, you probably got a queasy feeling in your stomach telling you “oh, I don’t like this at all”. That’s your native intuition as a speaker of English kicking in to tell you that those are not grammatical sentences. But some of these sentences are only bad because you are reading them as opposed to hearing them. Listen to this clip from Pawnee’s own Leslie Knope.

Parks and Recreation: Season 5 Episode 19

Seems to me we oughta use it.” When we read sentences without subjects, it provokes a stronger reaction compared to hearing someone say it, especially in the quick, casual register used in the clip above.

So what does this mean for the English language as a whole? Well, its hard to say for sure. It could be that we are witnessing a gradual language change where we are becoming more comfortable with ditching these meaningless expletive pronouns in our speech. After all, there are languages that are able to talk about the weather without the need for expletive pronouns.

In a language like Italian you can say “sta piovendo” where the “sta” is would be a verb like ‘be’ in English, and “piovendo” of course means ‘raining’. The word for word translation for a phrase like this would be “is raining”, and if you ask someone who speaks Italian, they likely wouldn’t get the same queasy feeling from “sta piovendo” that you get from “is raining”.

English isn’t the only language that requires these dummy pronouns to describe the weather. Germanic languages all require these pronouns in sentences, even if they don’t refer to anything at all. In German for instance, the phrase “es regnet” translates into English as “it rains”, where again, the ‘it’ doesn’t refer to anything in particular, but it needs to be there for the phrase to make sense (let’s ignore the lack of a verb and tense for the sake of simplicity here).

But is English changing? As a linguist, it’s not my job to try and dictate what should happen to language or to tell you to do the same either. What I can say though is that this might be something to keep your ears open for. Language phenomena have this funny way of sticking in your brain once you know about them. These expletive pronouns are something that may have gone completely unnoticed by you for most of your life, but now that you know a little bit more about them, you will probably notice them a lot more often. If this is the result of natural language change happening in real time, maybe the next time the rain is falling wherever you are you can go outside and scream “IS RAINING!” to get people used to this change a little bit faster.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.