March 08, 2005

WTF grammar

We need a new term. Prescriptive grammar says "thou shalt not say (things that meet conditions) XYZ". Descriptive grammar says "love the vernacular, and say what you like". But what do we call it when you're taken grammatically aback by something you hear or read, and then try to figure out what the problem was?

This process is somewhat prescriptive, in that it starts with a perceived violation of internalized norms (what Geoff Pullum and Barbara Scholz call correctness conditions). But it's also rather descriptive, in that you try to understand the problem by means of a systematic investigation of relevant patterns of usage. So how about reactive grammar? Or more informally, WTF grammar?

Case in point: Eric Bakovic's reaction to a sentence in an old Mac OS X manual.

If you have an older Mac and upgraded the processor, don't expect it to work or support from Apple.

Eric's reaction: "It's just bad." He has a story to tell about why it's bad, but his badness reaction comes first, and his explanation comes second.

And sometimes the explanation phase turns out to be remarkably difficult.

Back last summer, Eric had another one of those WTF moments when he read this sentence about resistentialism:

Here, at last, was a word for the rug that quietly curls up so it can snag your toe, the sock gone AWOL from the dryer, the slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down.

This hit Eric with an image of the writer experimentally dropping the same bit of breakfast over and over again, though it's clear that we're supposed to generalize over encounters with many different instances of jelly-clad toast. Eric analyzed the problem as "the use of the word always, universally quantifying over the predicate of the relative clause (hits the floor jelly side down) that in turn modifies a singular definite noun phrase (the slippery piece of toast)".

David Beaver suggested a different analysis: "The problem is simply that relative clauses, as has often been observed, are what we term scope islands".

I in turn objected to David's story, pointing out examples like

(link) Their Barbera is a fun and fruity wine that always pleases us...
(link) My mother used to make a fantastic beef stew that always tasted better the next day.

David responded with an account in terms of Carlson's distinction between different types of generic sentences, "only some of which involve reference to kinds", suggesting that "'piece of' resists being kind denoting". (If this isn't completely clear to you, that's the point -- it's high semantic wonkery, and if David's account is correct, you'll need quite a bit of background to understand what's really going on here.)

This morning, Gabriel Nivasch wrote to me with a different proposed explanation:

Regarding your post on the toast falling with the jelly side down:

There is a difference between "food", "wine", and "seafood" on one hand, and a "toast" on the other. The former are non-countable nouns, and the latter is a countable noun. Therefore, you can say

"food that always satisfies"

because each time it is a different piece of food that is being eaten, yet they're all placed together under the word "food". The same applies to "wine" and "seafood".

On the other hand, if you say

"a piece of toast that always falls"

it seems to say that the *same* piece of toast is falling one time after the other, so it sounds a little weird.

One problem up front is that toast isn't all that countable -- we usually say "Do you want some toast?" or "Do you want a piece of toast?", not "*Do you want a toast?"

Anyhow, I don't think that Eric's original WTF reaction was caused by "the piece of toast" being a count-noun kind of expression. Consider this quote from the brochure for the 1968 Renault 1100:

This is the car that's always been DIFFERENT and for 1968 it's differenter!

This quantifies over generic experiences with cars in different Renault model-years, not over experiences with any specific vehicle -- but car is certainly a count noun.

The best story still seems to be David Beaver's observation that piece of "resists being kind denoting". This is not entirely unconnected with the mass/count distinction, since piece of was motivated in the original sentence in order to countify toast, so to speak. However, I'm still not sure that this story is the right one.

So eight months and five analysts later, we've still got Eric's bizarreness reaction -- which most but not all people seem to agree with -- without any clear prescription about how to write so as to avoid it. This situation is not at all typical, because most grammatical WTFs have a simple explanation, easily accessible to someone with linguistic training. Nevertheless, this case emphasizes the fact that explicit grammatical principles are post hoc explanations of the phenomenology of linguistic experience. Norma Loquendi rules.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 8, 2005 08:45 AM