April 11, 2004

Grammar n-grams: that example-sentence smell

Ryan Gabbard at the Audhumlan Conspiracy used the slogan Join the Campaign for Interesting Example Sentences! to link to a post by Rachel Shallit, where Rachel cites Geoff Pullum's essay on allegedly libelous example sentences, and then criticizes herself for producing example sentences that defame no one, but "positively drip with boringness."

Now, I'm by no means a corpus fetishist, but this is one of several reasons that it's often a good idea to find examples rather than invent them. Real-life writing, like real-life speech, has a texture that's hard to fake.

Rachel quotes some of the allegedly libelous sentences that Geoff wrote about. Here are the first two:

  • "I heard John say that Bill was a coward" - defamatory of Bill
  • "John sent Mary the time bomb" - defamatory of John

Defamatory or not, these are not exactly exciting. They smell like grammar examples, somehow. This is not just a fantasy of mine: if I ask Google about the three-word sequence "John sent Mary", every single one of the 59 hits is a linguistics page; for "sent Mary the", 3 of the first 10 hits are grammar examples! Considering how small a fraction of the web is devoted to linguistics, that's extraordinary. For the four-word sequence "John say that Bill", every one of the 19 examples that Google knows about is from a linguistics page.

If we look at some of the few real examples from this haul, it's instantly clear that we're in a different world:

(link) Morton, George Douglas, Ker of Fawdonside and Ruthven fled into exile in England but made sure that they sent Mary the bond in which Darnley had fully incriminated himself.

(link) Bert sent Mary the following telegram: "we would furnish the Frotho delivered to your bar for $550."

Of course, such random examples are generally too long, but you can usually trim your catch to fit on one line without completely losing the sense that it's a connection to the real world rather than a perfunctory re-arrangement of well-worn game tokens, e.g.

Ruthven sent Mary the bond in which Darnley incriminated himself.

Or with a little more work, you can find even better short examples, which are still a glimpse of another mind rather than just words on a page. Since this is National Poetry Month, here are a few dative-relevant phrases from LION:

He shall send a committee to England (Walt Whitman)
This gave me that precarious gait (Emily Dickinson)
God gave a loaf to every bird (Emily Dickinson)
He hath not told his thought to the King? (William Shakespeare)
I pray thee then deny me not thy aide (John Milton)
Show me the pain (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

This is not a new idea. When I studied Latin as a kid, the example sentences in our grammar books were like little museum dioramas for me. Look at the examples in this section of Allen and Greenough on indirect objects with transitives, for instance

dabis profecto misericordiae quod iracundiae negavisti; (Deiot. 40), you will surely grant to mercy what you refused to wrath.


equo ne credite (Aen. 2.48) , put not your trust in the horse.


[Cf. non quo haberem quod tibi scriberem (id. 4.4A), not that I had anything to write to you]

Hale and Buck's Latin Grammar is not on line (as far as I know), but its section on uses of the dative includes examples like:

haeret lateri letalis harundo, the deadly shaft sticks in the side ; Aen. 4, 73.
pugnabis amori? shall you struggle against love? Aen. 4, 38.


defendit aestatem capellis, wards off the heat from my goats ; Carm. 1, 17, 3.

So if you want interesting example sentences, lose the grammatical n-grams and look in Emily Dickinson. Or even take random stuff off the internet. It'll be more interesting for your readers, and you might find something new in the process.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 11, 2004 07:17 PM