March 23, 2004

Verbs and prepositions

Over at Transblawg, the estimable Margaret Marks has posted a sort of quiz about verb/preposition associations in English. Her examples are all from the context of legal translation, but most of them apply more widely.

I've recently been musing about unexpected associations of this type, especially "worry of" (here and here). These norms about complementation have a lot of interesting practical and theoretical properties. They're syntactically and semantically quasi-regular, for one thing -- a mixture of predictability and idiosyncrasy, and therefore presumably a mixture of "figure it out" and "look it up" strategies. They're somewhat variable across individuals, dialects and times. And they're relatively easy to study by string-search methods -- such searches don't in themselves produce reliable counts, because of the variable structure of the results, but they yield samples that can be humanly checked to produce accurate rates. One of the things that I've come to realize is that there is more low-level variation in the "meme pool" for such constructions than one might think. Actually, anyone who grades student papers will have learned this -- college students, even quite literate ones, often produce unexpected verb/preposition combinations.

For all these reasons, verb/preposition (and noun/preposition) combinations should provide a good domain in which to study what you might call the population memetics of grammar. And having accurate statistics for complementation would be useful for parsing purposes, anyway. So I've been thinking about how to design and implement large-scale studies of this sort of thing.

As another very small-scale exploration of the area, here are a few observations on some of Dr. Marks' examples.

1. to be eligible for parole

This is a pretty strong norm -- but you can find some examples, apparently produced by native speakers, using eligible of instead of for. These uses seem just as wrong to me as "worry of it" does, but I'm disposed to treat them as low-frequency variants in the meme pool rather than as production errors:

Wright State University's Police Department has a page about its S.A.F.E. escort service that includes the heading "Who is eligible of the S.A.F.E. escort service?"

Emory's study abroad site includes a document explaining that "[i]n order to be eligible of the Advanced Language Study Abroad Grant students must..." have four stipulated properties.

2. to sentence someone to a term of imprisonment

The preposition for is an alternative (at much lower frequency of occurrence) for to in this context, despite the potential confusion between crime and sentence.

This Florida appeals court decision quotes a trial record as finding that

It will be the judgment and sentence of this court that Russell Lee Yates be adjudicated guilty, and that he be sentenced for a term of years not exceeding 30 years.

I'll quote at greater length from an article in the Cornell Daily Sun, because it happens to feature Wayles Browne, an excellent linguist, in a non-linguistic role:

"The punishment doesn't fit the crime [under the Rockefeller Laws]," said Prof. Wayles Browne, linguistics, who spoke at the meeting. He cited the case of 17-year-old Angela Thompson, who was sentenced for 15 years to life as a first-time offender. Ten years later Browne, who reviewed the case, finally won clemency for the girl after two tries in the appeals court.

The lede of an Irish Examiner story says that

A woman scarred for life by a former lover told a court prior to the man being sentenced for six years yesterday that she just wants to feel safe again.

A California appeals court ruling explains that

The trial court sentenced him for a term of life imprisonment, as an habitual offender and imposed a $100,000 fine.

4. to make money from dealing in heroin

I believe that "in" is the preposition that Dr. Marks has in mind here, but a direct object would work as well, as in an article from the Chesterton Tribune asserting that "Michael V. Higi ..., was charged with dealing heroin, a Class B felony punishable by a term of six to 20 years in prison". In fact, "dealing heroin" gets 753 ghits, while "dealing in heroin" only gets 570. Language Hat suggests that "dealing heroin" is the American version, but this Dublin Sinn Fein site has "a number of tactics used by a very small element of the anti-drugs movement - of targeting young addicts who dealt heroin to feed their habits - failed and failed miserably".

And "dealing of heroin" get 31 ghits. These mostly strike me as fine, like the sentence "Some small scale street dealing of heroin and cocaine also occurs in this area" (from this article), or this article's discussion of "a vehicle thought to be involved in the dealing of heroin".

However, "dealing" is likely to be a noun in all of these cases (it's a noun in the ten that I checked), and as in the case of "worry", the noun version of a predicate often reverts to "of", at least optionally.

[Update 6/22/2004: Wayles Browne writes:

I found my name in the Language Log in connection with an example from the Cornell newspaper. But they got it wrong, and I wrote a letter to them disclaiming the credit. Let me disclaim it to you too. Really what I said at the meeting was that ten years later a retired judge, who reviewed the case, finally won clemency for the girl. I wish it had been me, but I haven't got the legal skills.

Wayles added: "Obviously I said she was sentenced TO 15 years to life." Well, that was the reporter's preposition, I think, and apparently no more reliable than the quotation. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 23, 2004 08:17 AM