December 05, 2003

How far from the madding gerund? (100kG)

In Far from the Madding Gerund, Mark Liberman noted Edward Skidelsky writing:

Unfortunately, Lessons of the Masters far from fulfils the promise of its subject.

Mark says this is syntactically odd, since the highlighted part has "no plausible syntactic analysis." He goes on to observe a clever way in which it may be right after all, or at least may become so. He notes that Skidelsky's sentence probably involves the first stages of a language change, specifically a reanalysis of far from as an adverb. I've got news for Mark: you're right. Except the reanalysis has already happened.

The question is whether  far from is already an adverb for many speakers (a use in which its spatial connotation has been completely superceded by a function as a modal degree modifier, following a common path of grammaticalization.) Let's let Google weigh in, with searches "far from fulfills", "far from fulfils" and "they far from". Here are some of the hits:

Democracy far from fulfills the illusions that drive it, yet, in Winston Churchill's immortal turn of the phrase, it's the worst political system save the alternatives.

The role of this type far from fulfils the required role of such a division.

While they far from guarantee a successful and stress free implementation, they at least put the developer on the right path.

A name and a color scheme are essentials of an army, but they far from complete an army.

The Reds had the start they far from wanted, with Mick Godber having to leave the field for treatment after just 40 seconds after a Vauxhall defender had followed through. But he was back on within three minutes.

They far from fail him when he translates his feelings into images of nature.

So just how common is "far from" + finite verb? Well,  "they far from" gives 481 hits, and a quick scan indicates that very roughly 50% of these are of the right sort, say about 200 Googles. We can compare this to another low frequency adverb: "they ungraciously" gives 23 Googles. Now "ungraciously" itself returns about  10 kiloGoogles, most of which come from "ungraciously" + finite verb. Ignoring multiple occurrences of a pattern in the same document, we can make a very rough and ready estimate of the web frequency of "far from" + finite verb: +/- 100kG (i.e. 200G * 10kG / 23G).

How many kG should convince me that some pattern is grammatical? The answer must be complicated, presumably depending on pattern length and abstractness. Then again, I'm surrounded by heretics who suggest grammaticality may be gradient. If grammaticality is a function of frequency, then the one question becomes two: what are the units of grammaticality, and what is the function? Well, heck, these are tricky questions, but let's just suppose the function is identity, and measure grammaticality directly in Google hits. Then we know just how grammatical "far from" + finite verb is. Yup, that's 100kG of grammaticality. I'll be darned if it ain't 30kG more grammatical than madding. An easier question is: why did Mark get all uppity about far from? Why hadn't he already reanalyzed far from as an adverb?

From what I know of Mark, I'm guessing Google's corpus gives a pretty representative sample of the language he encounters. Google scans about 3 billion documents, including a lot of non text and non-English. I'll call it a nice round billion. Let's say the documents have an average of 1000 words. (I've no idea if this is right.) Then the Google corpus is about a trillion words of English text, and contains about a trillion trigrams. 100,000 of these trigrams are "far from" + finite verb, so this pattern has a frequency of about 1 per 10 million. Now I'm guessing that 10 million is within an order of magnitude of the number of trigrams Mark has ever encountered.  So it doesn't surprise me that he just encountered the "far from" + finite verb pattern, but it also wouldn't surprise me if it's his first time.

Congratulations Mark! And don't worry - it's much less painful the second time around.

Posted by David Beaver at December 5, 2003 11:59 PM