December 12, 2005

Instant boilerplate email reply key

In recent weeks my email from Language Log readers has involved certain specific topics so frequently that I am finding I have to send out huge numbers of replies that are almost identical. In order to save bandwidth and typing time, I am preparing standardized replies to the points that are most frequently put to me in emails, and I list them here. I hope in future to be able to just write back and say "See my boilerplate reply #3" or something like that, and you will be able to look up the full courteous reply here. I hope that's all right. Here are the first five standardized answers, each of which contains material I have had to send to readers over and over again. Where there are passages in curly brackets, please strike out what is not applicable.

Reply #1. Dear _____: Yes, it is fairly clear that the solution to the puzzle of why *If you don't yet know her, get to is ungrammatical is that ‘get to know NP’ is an idiom; its meaning ("become acquainted with NP") is not fully predictable from the meanings of its parts, and it strongly resists being syntactically broken up. Chris Culy points out that there is other evidence: when you negate it, you can only negate the whole thing: I didn't get to know her while I was there is grammatical but *I got not to know her while I was there is ungrammatical. (Compare with I didn't try to look interested and I tried not to look interested, both of which are OK.) So you are right in pointing out the idiomaticity; I agree with you. Thank you for your message.

Reply #2. Dear _____: I am grateful to have your interesting reminiscences of working in an {ice cream parlor / fast food joint / coffee shop / bookstore / venereal disease clinic} some {five / ten / fifteen} years ago in the {northeast / midwest / west} of the country and finding that you fell into the practice of saying Can I help who's next? even though you thought at the time it was not grammatical. (The largest number of emails in this that I have had comes from the upper Midwest; it reallly does look like it might have come into being in the Michigan area in the late 1980s, though one never really knows.) I guess your use of it despite reluctance just goes to show the force of the social pressure that they used to measure with those social psychology experiments where you sit with (unknown to you) four accomplices of the researcher and listen to a bell sound five times and everyone else says it was six and you go along with them even though you were quite sure it was only five. We like to think that we would stand firm and say "No, it was five." But the empirical evidence says we would not. Gullible and easily led social mammals that we are.

Reply #3. Dear _____: Thank you for your kind words; I'm glad you liked my posts about {The Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons / Deception Point / Digital Fortress}. I guess I'm not going to be able to sell my old used copies of Dan Brown novels to you, am I? (Grin.)

Reply #4. Dear _____: No, I'm afraid I cannot tell you how Mark Liberman manages to post so many interesting things when there are only 24 hours in a day. I have absolutely no clue about this. I have hung around outside his office at 1 Language Log Plaza and watched him work, and he concentrates pretty hard, but he types at about the same speed as an average person, and takes phone calls, and gets up now and then to get more coffee. He probably puts his pants on one leg at a time like anyone else, I would think (I've never had occasion to watch that). So I'm unable to help you. Contrary to your speculation, I do not think that any deal with the devil is involved; the Language Log Board does not permit assigning one's soul to Satan; there is a no-compete clause in our contracts.

Reply #5. Dear _____: I am so glad you like the picture on my personal web site, and I am flattered by your suggestion; it arouses my interest, and more besides. But unfortunately here at Language Log we have strict ethical guidelines that forbid any more intimate relationship with our readers than the one inherent in the blogger/bloggee bond. Either you would have to absolutely promise to stop reading Language Log, or I would have to stop writing for it and leave Language Log Plaza; but strict corporation rules forbid my embarking on a relationship with you that is of anything like the kind you suggest. I'm sorry, but rules are rules. That oral stuff was hot, though. Tell me a bit more about that. By the way, I'm typing this naked.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 12, 2005 05:49 PM