January 24, 2004

Speaker change in mid sentence

While preparing for the speaking visit Barbara Scholz and I just made to UC San Diego (which was really great -- a superb intellectual community for cognitive science, and wonderful hospitality), I had occasion to call up my friend Farrell Ackerman in his office. His deep voice answered the phone: "Farrell Ackerman," he said, rather languidly.

But then something shocking happened.

Without warning, a totally different excited-sounding female voice seized control of the clause and completed the predicate for him: "is not available!" she said in tones of bubbling delight; "Please leave a message after the tone!"

I think what was so horrible about it for a syntactician like me was not just that for half a second I thought I was hearing Farrell answer the phone live and then he was snatched away; it was that you just don't expect there to be a speaker change between the end of the subject noun phrase and the beginning of the immediately following verb phrase which agrees with it in person and number.

There are plenty of other horrible things about voicemail systems, of course. One example is the ghastly practice of recording a message that begins slowly and patronizingly, "You have reached the office of . . .". No live human being ever picks up the phone and says anything that begins with "You have reached." (And of course, it is always a lie: you only get to hear "You have reached X" when you haven't reached X because X isn't there.

But the speaker-change device is a particularly nasty one for grammarians. Next time I need Farrell, I'll use email.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 24, 2004 02:55 PM