Grammar as metaphor

I’ve been noticing more uses of grammatical metalanguage in non-technical senses, either because people thought they were using it in the technical sense but were wrong, or because they’re using terms with a metaphorical, expanded meaning. Here, I just mean to catalog 2 of them. I don’t mean to point my pallid, vitamin-D-starved linguist finger at normies and make fun of how little they understand their own words, but just to point out that with linguistics going a tiny bit mainstream (I hope?), some of its technical jargon has been adapted, with modifications, for general use. If this trend continues, maybe linguists will begin to understand the frustration of psychologists and neuroscientists trying to explain what remember means.

Passive Voice Confuses, and People Are Confused

The term “passive voice” has been recruited as a metaphor for a few different features of discourse, almost always ones that the writer/speaker does not like. It always seems to refer to some attempt to obscure responsibility for an act, whether or not the utterance being called out includes what grammarians would call “passive voice”. Here are some examples of the various ways that people use “passive voice” in senses that range from technically correct to clearly not.

Here we see it used in a way consistent with its technical definition to criticize hiding the agent:

While this is technically correct, it is still interesting to see a grammar term used on Twitter as a form of criticism. If it were up to me, people would criticize each other much more for using the present simple. And incidentally, I don’t find anything problematic about this instance of passive voice – the patients are the focus of the article, and no reasonable reader would misinterpret the situation.

Here we see it used to describe an active, but unaccusative verb. It is noteworthy that people don’t attack newspaper headlines on Twitter for using unaccusative verbs – “passive voice” has made the leap to popular consciousness while more esoteric terms have not.

I assume if you’re reading this that you know what passive voice is, but you might not know the slightly less common term unaccusative (I often confuse it with unergative myself). Unaccusative verbs are intransitive verbs (verbs that don’t take an object) that lack an agent; their subjects undergo some process like fall, end, or break with no implication that the subject intended it. Perhaps contributing to the confusion around passive voice is that some verbs like break can also be transitive and used in the passive voice.

The vase was broken. (transitive and in passive voice, hiding the agent)

The vase broke. (intransitive and in active voice, without an agent)

Apparently, and in one of the linguistic fun facts I learned from Steven Pinker before my MA, causative alternation (“I broke the chair” : “The chair broke” :: *”I fell the vase” : “The vase fell”) is one of many rules with many odd exceptions that adult speakers take for granted but that learners and children take quite some time to get down.

Here we see a version of “passive” which extends the “supine, acquiescent” meaning from outside of linguistics of the word into a quasi-grammatical term:

On Twitter, I made an early attempt to capture what people mean when they use “passive” in this way:

But clearly, people mean “passive voice” as a criticism of utterances or discourse that are insufficient in clarity or strength of blame, not merely grammatical agency. You can see this below, in which the writer (correctly) identifies the passive voice, but as a remedy, also changes the verb from injured to the more impactful shot.

Being a Verb is a Gerund

The extended meaning of “verb” is a bit easier to define than that of “passive voice”. In examples like those below, people define “verb” as any deliberate action. Obviously, in grammatical metalanguage, actions can be expressed with any part of speech, and confusingly, the words “action” and “verb” are both nouns (except in the case of verbing), meaning that when we say “a verb is an action word”, the only verb in the sentence we just used to define verbs as action words is the non-action verb “is”.

Clearly, the technical meaning of “verb” includes a lot of things that aren’t actions (like “include”), but in the popular parlance, a “verb” is an action taken with effort and thought.

In the example below, the writer means to emphasize that being an anti-racist educator requires active effort.

There is a discussion separate from whether “be” is a verb (as of this writing, it is) that is focused on whether “be” is always stative, like “seem” or “think” (as in “I think so”), or can be a dynamic verb like “swim” or “regurgitate”. Obviously, in senses like “to be an anti-racist educator”, most people would call “be” stative, undercutting the intended implication of the utterance since stative verbs do not denote any kind of deliberate action. On the other hand, I remember a Louis CK bit (no link, but you are free to look it up) where he describes his boredom of watching his kids “be children”, which sounds to me like a dynamic verb meant to capture the various actions that being a child entails. Note that in this case, “be” also seems not to take its normal conjugations – he said “they be children”, not “they are children”. I wish I had another, less scandalous, example.

The writer below also seems to think “word” itself has a negative connotation, and that a “word” is a more sterile (and maybe “passive”) thing than a “verb”.

Here, “noun” is counterposed with “verb”, probably for its supposed inactive qualities. Of course, anyone with basic knowledge of grammar can see that “love” is only used as a noun in this tweet.

In the cases of both passive voice and verbs, some stereotyped characteristic of the grammatical feature seems to be the source of the extended meaning – dishonest framing in the case of passive voice, and deliberate action in the case of verbs.

Let’s speculate on what could be next idea from linguistics to make it to the mainstream. I have long hoped for the idea of “markedness”, something being slightly off from the norm (usually with intent, unless the subject doesn’t know the code by which his/her behavior is being judged) without being technically wrong, to make it into people’s explanations of, for example, culture shock, driving habits, or joke writing. Another is the phenomenon by which indirect references are reinterpreted as direct references by cutting out the middleman, aka the dead metaphor, which explains how the suffix “-gate” can be an indirect reference to scandals in general to the generation that saw Nixon’s scandals firsthand to just the name for any scandal to subsequent generations.

I definitely hope for more recognition for the linguistics/philosophy version of “performative” (as in “comes to be through its performance”) instead of the currently en vogue definition, “putting on a show for the benefit of audience perceptions”. I imagine when people hear some version of “gender is performative” alongside “… politician’s apology was performative” and “performative activism”, they might get the wrong idea about how trans people see their gender.

Then again, the next linguistics term to make it big might be totally out of left field: Maybe “argument structure” will come to mean “speech format”? Or “wug test” for comparison shopping for floor decorations? “U-shaped development” for a diet program?

A taxonomy of comma splices

Working in academic ESL, I see all manner of comma splices – ones that immediately strike me as non-native, ones that seem to reflect English acquired via Facebook, and ones that could be made by professional writers. I’m 90% sure I saw some in the David Sedaris book I just finished, a COCA search finds a bunch under every genre (try the search terms “, _nn* [be] .”), and as a few survey respondents have pointed out, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities begins with a Guinness-worthy streak of them.

I set out trying to separate the types of comma splices I was seeing, assuming that they had some kind of logic to them. After all, all of the people I’ve seen splicing with commas know that periods (full stops) exist and are presumably using commas for some reason. What follows below is a list of the categories of comma splice that I saw with examples written by me, followed by the results of a survey I did in an attempt to figure out which type of comma splice is the least offensive. My Twitter followers are mostly language teachers (as are the LinkedIn groups that I posted the survey in), so their reactions ought to be interesting.

For the record, and just to show that I’m not just asking my Twitter followers to figure out what a comma splice is, a comma splice is two independent clauses separated by a comma and only a comma. Take out the comma and it’s a run-on, an error that probably deserves its own survey. You can fix comma splices in three ways:

  1. Add a conjunction (preferably and, so, or but – many teachers use the acronym FANBOYS, but honestly, how often do you see “for” as a conjunction?)
  2. Change the comma to a semicolon, or
  3. Change the comma to a period.

See? Here are the categories.

Elaborative comma splices

The price does not reflect the cost of production, it reflects supply and demand.

Similar to the corrective comma splices below, this type of comma splice seeks to add information to the previous independent clause, in this case by adding information. I flubbed the writing of this one a bit by leaving out the word “just”; feel free to ignore this item. Run your own survey if you like.

Explanatory comma splices

The chain went bankrupt, its sales had been falling for years.

Here, the independent clause after the comma explains the one before; it gives a reason. Anecdotally, these are very common among ELLs.

Juxtapositional comma splices

Dogs are descended from wolves, house cats came from feral cats.

Here, the comma separates two independent clauses that are meant as opposites of each other. In style manuals, cases like these would call for a coordinating conjunction like “but” or “yet”, or a subordinating conjunction like “while” or “although”. Many readers, not to mention writers, seem to find them unobjectionable with no conjunction at all.

Corrective comma splices

Richards was not the director, Denton was.

Here, the second clause supplies the correct information whose existence is implied in the first.

Incidentally, the range of relationships between clauses that one sees in comma splices makes one feel the poverty of meanings in the English palette of conjunctions, and particularly the coordinating conjunctions.

Chronological comma splices

The new phone model came out, planning for the next model began soon after.

In this comma splice, the connection between the clauses is chronological; the first precedes the second.

I may have tripped an additional wire in readers’ minds here by making the subject of the second clause a gerund, which could be interpreted as the start of a participial phrase, triggering a garden path (see below). This wouldn’t be a graceful participial phrase, but of course people don’t always respect “the rules” as those go either.

Non-sequitur comma splices

The air is thick with moisture, the office has a meeting at noon.

Not much to say except that this sentence was as unpopular as you might imagine.

Appositive comma spices

The article was written by Malcolm Gladwell, he is a Canadian journalist.

Here, the second clause also supplies more information about something in the first clause by defining a noun. I’m calling them appositive comma splices because without a subject or verb they would simply be appositive phrases.

Conjunctive adverb comma splices

There is a water shortage, therefore citizens are being asked to take shorter showers.

Here, the comma comes before a word with a similar meaning to a conjunction but in a different grammatical class. Called “linking words”, “transitions”, or “conjunctive adverbs” by writing teachers, these words most commonly come at the start of a complete sentence or between commas, as with some other adverbials, in the middle of an independent clause set apart by commas. To illustrate what I understand is the conventional usage of these words:

  • There is a water shortage. Therefore, citizens are being asked to take shorter showers.
  • There is a water shortage; therefore, citizens are being asked to take shorter showers.
  • There is a water shortage. Citizens, therefore, are being asked to take shorter showers.

As an academic writing teacher, my radar is always up for comma splices with these words (which we usually teach explicitly as a counterpart to coordinating and subordinating conjunctions), and to be honest I’m a bit disappointed that so many people disagree with me. Being a responsible writing teacher, though, I need to respect the vox populii. My job is not to make my ELLs the most comma splice-averse people on campus.

Quasi-participial phrase comma splices

The customers are waiting in line, they are holding their baskets.

Like the appositive comma splice above, the second independent clause could easily be reduced down to a familiar and well-accepted construction, the participial phrase.

(side note: I absolutely hate the term “reduced adjective clause” for participial phrases. I don’t think the term bootstraps learners’ understanding enough to justify the additional metalanguage and I don’t think it captures at all how fluent speakers think of them.)

Rephrasing comma splices

It is wasteful, it is inefficient.

Here, the second phrase is semantically very similar to the first. Anecdotally, I don’t see these very much in academic writing classes.

Garden path comma splices

The manager adjourned the meeting, switching off the projector caused the room to go dark.

This is the least comfortable for me to read, and is the reason that, if I remember correctly, Steven Pinker rejects any emails written with comma splices. Here, the comma splice encourages a misprediction by the reader as to how the sentence will proceed – the reader imagines that the manager adjourned the meeting by or while switching off the projector, only to trip over another finite verb in “caused”, which forces them to reappraise “switching” as a gerund instead of as a present participle, leading them up the garden path, so to speak.


The above were presented to anyone who followed my link (mostly Twitter followers, who are mostly language teachers) with a 1-5 Likert-like scale of acceptability, 1=totally unacceptable, 3=don’t know/can’t decide, 5=totally acceptable. The following blurb was presented as well:

The following are all examples of comma splices. Please rate their acceptability as if you were a college writing teacher and they were produced by freshman writing students for a take-home writing assignment that has a grading rubric that includes grammatical accuracy.
For “totally unacceptable” answers, there would be a penalty in points for the error in question. For “totally acceptable” answers, the sentence in question could stand as an example of correct usage and could be recommended to other students.

46 people answered the survey, which again makes me wish I’d had Twitter when I was doing my MA research.

First major result

People vary widely in how they view the comma splices above. The mean score across all items was 2.33, slightly disapproving, and the mean standard deviation was 1.26. The median across all answers was 2 and the mode (most common answer) across all answers was 1.

Second major result

People who accept one of the sentences above tend to accept others as well; people who don’t don’t. All items are positively correlated with all other items, although some more than others. The average correlation of every item with every item (including itself) was 0.407.

Other results


The mean scores were:

  1. The price does not reflect the cost of production, it reflects supply and demand. (elaborative, but reads like corrective) Mean: 3.20, Median 4, Stdev 1.55; notably correlated with #2 (explanatory) and #3 (juxtapositional) at about 0.51 each, and #4 (corrective) at 0.59. This is one of 3 of my sentences that scored above 3, i.e. more accepted than not. 2 of them, this one and #4, have the same “not A, B” structure (although I didn’t intend for this one to), making that an early candidate for a characteristic of “acceptable” comma splices. It is probably good news that these two are more correlated with each other than most.
  2. The chain went bankrupt, its sales had been falling for years. (explanatory) Mean 1.84, Median 2, Stdev 1.09; notably correlated with #1. Early on, when I only had about 20 respondents, this one was correlated with #5 (chronological), #7 (appositive), #9 (quasi-participial phrase), and #11 (garden path). I guessed that people who accept (or not) one type of comma splice tend to accept (or not) others as well, and these hills in the correlations might even out with more survey participants. It turns out that is what happened.
  3. Dogs are descended from wolves, house cats came from feral cats. (juxtapositional) Mean 2.40, Median 2, Stdev 1.48; notably correlated with #1. This one fell slightly under mean acceptability. I suppose it screams a bit too strongly for a semicolon.
  4. Richards was not the director, Denton was. (corrective) Mean 3.71, Median 4, Stdev 1.41; notably correlated with only #1, which shares its “not A, B” structure. This one had the highest score overall and was one of 3 (#1, this one, and #8) that had a mode of 5, “totally acceptable”.
  5. The new phone model came out, planning for the next model began soon after. (chronological) Mean 1.96, Median 2, Stdev 1.17; notably correlated with #6 at 0.654 (see below).
  6. The air is thick with moisture, the office has a meeting at noon. (non-sequitur) Mean 1.38, Median 1, Stdev 0.89; notably correlated with #5. This one had the lowest score, as one would expect. It seems that chronological comma splices are disapproved of by the same people who disapprove of comma splices whose clauses are completely unrelated.
  7. The article was written by Malcolm Gladwell, he is a Canadian journalist. (appositive) Mean 1.66, Median 1, Stdev 1.16; not notably correlated with any other item.
  8. There is a water shortage, therefore citizens are being asked to take shorter showers. (conjunctive adverb) Mean 3.25, Median 4, Stdev 1.60; notably correlated with #9 at 0.557. I’m not sure what makes people who accept this sentence also accept the next (and vice versa), as their clauses have very different relationships with each other. To me, this item is unique in that the relationship between the two clauses is actually transparent and given literally by a conjunction-like word (therefore). I don’t see a connection between this item and any other, but it seems that some people do.
  9. The customers are waiting in line, they are holding their baskets. (quasi-participial phrase) Mean 1.93, Median 2, Stdev 1.08; notably correlated with #8 (0.557) and #10 (0.516). Even more mysterious than the lack of relationship (at least to me) with these two items is the fact that this item is much less accepted than either of them.
  10. It is wasteful, it is inefficient. (rephrasing) Mean 2.68, Median 2, Stdev 1.55; notably correlated with #9. This is one where respondents might also be reacting to the redundancy in the two clauses. I said in my blurb to treat the assignment as a first-year college English assignment, and respodents might have struggled with thinking of a college writing assignment where saying the same thing twice, even with orthodox correct grammar, would be acceptable.
  11. The manager adjourned the meeting, switching off the projector caused the room to go dark. (garden path) Mean 1.57, Median 1, Stdev 0.93. I would actually be worried if this one were approved of by most people.

Last, the item with the highest average correlations with the other items overall is #3 (chronological) at 0.469, followed closely by #9 (quasi-partipial phrase) at 0.462. In a nutshell, if someone accepts #3 or #9, he or she will probably be willing to accept other comma splices too, and vice versa – someone who rejects #3 or #9 probably rejects others.

Unsurprisingly, a comma splice in which the two clauses appear to have nothing to do with one another (#6) strikes almost everyone as wrong. The fact that this one scored lower when all of them are “technically” wrong is interesting, showing that semantic or discursive rather than grammatical congruence determines acceptability for most people. As is the premise of this entire project, all of these are equally wrong for exactly the same reason, at least according to the rules of grammar most of us use when giving feedback on student writing. If my Twitter followers are a sign of the attitudes that most grammatically-minded people take toward comma splices, then corrective comma splices may be bordering on safe for beginning writing students, and at least some conjunctive adverbs like therefore might be heading toward acceptability in the grammatical role usually reserved for conjunctions.


There was a space at the end for respondents to leave qualitative comments on what makes a comma splice acceptable or not. Here are some of them:

It seems that if the topics of the two parts are more closely aligned the error doesn’t seem quite as wrong. [That’s probably exactly what my students think]

It seems to me like if the comma could be replaced by a semi-colon or a colon it “sounds” more acceptable.

Something about rhetorical effect and whether the subject has changed. Dickens and the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities set some kind of precedent of acceptability.

Most of them should just be periods; some could be semicolons. [When you do a survey of different sentences which make the same language-related mistake in different ways, you always get a few respondents who refuse to look past the issue that is the baseline for the entire exploration. Ah well, uncovering this attitude is part of the purpose of a survey like this]

I love them all

I wish there was a little more info on the type of assignment. Going by the statement that there’s a grammar rubric, I’m thinking it’s straight up conventional rules, and they’re all “wrong” in that case. If it was at all a creative writing assignment, I’d give some of the ones that imply a series more leeway, like the wasteful/inefficient one. I think even more so if there was a third clause: It is wasteful, it is inefficient, it is wrong. [A very useful point!]

Super interesting survey! They’re more acceptable when the second clause describes the first clause of adds more information, e.g., Gladwell question. [Interestingly, most respondents disagreed.]

These are all independent clauses [See above]

There were all unacceptable …

I guess it might sound more acceptable if the second sentence seemed to be tacked on as an afterthought, like in the Denton example.

Continuation of a idea- more like an a positive. Or listing.

I think if one of the clauses is made unequal either by shortening it or using a pronoun, a comma splice might be acceptable. For e.g. “dogs are descended from wolves, house cats from feral cats.” (But in this case would it still be a comma splice?) [Not according to my sense of grammar orthodoxy since the second phrase lacks a verb]

As with anything in language matters, conventions are merely an agreement of that languages speakers. They are subject to change with each generation. If a new generation agrees that they should change conventions, then the convention will be changed. It appears that normally 75% agreement is a threshold for introducing the new convention. It would seem to me that young writers at the threshold percentage have changed the convention of the use of the comma, especially in the case of what traditionalists now call comma splices. [Curious where the 75% number comes from]

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share these results over Thanksgiving dinner.

Participial adjectives and the nouns that love them

At the request of Mr. Mark Brierley after the last post on participial adjectives, I’ve tried to come up with a few tests of my ambiguously defined “association” between participial adjectives and the verbs that they bear some family relation to. These tests probably have very little validity (bearing in mind that I never really defined “close” to begin with), but they do come in legitimate-looking tables.

All of them here are variations on what I call the “shared subject/object” test. Basically, if a participial adjective like “interesting” often has the same subject that a verb like “interest” does, or a participial adjective like “interested” often has the same subject that a verb like “interest” takes as an object, we can call them “close”.

I only did these searches for 5 verb/adjective sets, because until my institution pays for BYU corpora membership, I can only do so many searches a day. Also, this many searches on the iWeb corpus is already quite unhealthy.

So first, some raw numbers.

verb subjpres adj subj

These are the numbers of subjects of these verbs and their present participial adjectives which are pronouns and nouns respectively, followed by the percent of the total number of subjects that are pronouns. As you can see, the verb “annoy” comes with a pronoun subject (usually “it”) 86.57% of the time, while the adjective “annoying” has a pronoun subject even more often (also usually “it”). I didn’t keep track of how many of these are the dummy “it” seen in sentences like “it annoys me that robo-callers always spoof numbers from your own area code”, but I suspect it is a lot.

Next we have the differences between those rates of pronoun subjects:


According to this probably unscientific measure, the verb “overwhelm” is “closer” to its present participial adjective “overwhelming” than “excite” is to “exciting”.

Let’s make this a little easier to visualize. On this test of “closeness”, the rankings are:

Test #1 ranking

Here is the same data for past participial adjectives. Because past participial adjectives are related to the passive voice of transitive verbs (e.g. “it excites me” is similar in meaning to “I am excited” rather than “it is excited”), I compared the rates of pronouns as the objects of verbs rather than subjects.

verb objpast adj subj

This time, “excite” seems “closer” to “excited” than “overwhelm” is to “overwhelmed”, but there is a problem that invalidates most if not all of what I think I can learn from this particular group of searches. The searches that I used to get these results were overwhelms _nn*, overwhelms _p*, _nn* [be] overwhelmed_j* and _p* [be] overwhelmed_j*. Do you see the problem? If you do, you probably use the BYU corpora as much as I do (seek help!). When you search for _nn* [be] overwhelmed_j*, you will get back a lot of noun phrases that happen to end with a noun, for example “the man in the back row was overwhelmed“, but not so for overwhelms _nn*, which requires the first word after “overwhelms” to be a noun to return anything. English noun phrases being what they are, a lot of perfectly good noun phrases that start with articles or adjectives are not being detected by my search. That is, “overwhelms people” comes back as a hit, but “overwhelms a person” does not. In short, my searches for the relative frequencies of subjects and objects are not very valid – at best they tell me that pronouns are fairly common (pronoun searches do not suffer from the problem above since they don’t follow articles or adjectives). The same search problem vitiates all of my verb/past participial adjective searches, so take them all with grains of salt. I’m not going to give rankings to these due to the Sochi-like untrustworthiness of the results.

Now for something a bit more concrete: What specifically are the nouns that come with these verbs and adjectives?

verb subj #1#2#3pres adj subj #1#2#3

Here we see some interesting things – the top 3 subjects for both verbs and present participial adjectives are the same for “annoy”/”annoying”, and 2 of the three are the same for “inspire”/”inspiring”. Here is an update ranking of “closeness”:

Test #1 rankingTest #2 ranking
excite53 (tie)
overwhelm13 (tie)
amaze43 (tie)

verb obj #1#2#3past adj subj #1#2#3
excitepeople electronsstudentsteampeoplecompany
annoypeople usersotherspeoplefansothers
overwhelmpeople studentsvisitorsheartsystemclinics
inspirepeople confidenceotherspostporkowl-ways
amazepeople visitorsaudiencespeopledoctorskids

First of all, the #1 object for all of the verbs is “people”, as in “it excites people” or “it inspires people”. There is more variety in the subjects of past participial adjectives, but 2 of the top hits are still “people” – “people are annoyed” and “people are amazed”. The objects suffer from the same validity problem outlined earlier, so take this with even more salt, but we can say at least that “people” is a common object for verbs whose past participial adjective counterparts have the subject “people”.

Last but not least, the #1 hits as a percent of the total hits. The first column is the #1 subject for the verb as a % of the hits for that verb, and the second column is the #1 subject for that adjective as % of the hits for that verb. The 3rd column is the 1st divided by the 2nd – the closer to 1 that number is, the more similar the proportion of those two words in the hits.

verb subj #1 as % of totalpres part adj #1 as % of totalratiopres adj subjverb subj as % of totalratio

Based on the above, “annoy” and “annoying” are quite “close”, but “overwhelm” and “overwhelming” are not. This is the last test to count toward official rankings:

Test #1 rankingTest #2 rankingTest #3 ranking
excite53 (tie)4
overwhelm13 (tie)5
amaze43 (tie)3

That gives us an idea of which of the verb/present participial adjective pairs is “closest” according to all of the tests I ran. But first, the same results for verbs/past participial adjectives:

verb obj #1 as % of total past part adj #1 as % of total #1 as % of total past adj subjverb obj #1 as % of totaltotal nouns
overwhelm0.2860.000Div 00.1300.0433.000
inspire0.1490.000Div 00.0410.000Div 0

Likewise for verbs and past participial adjectives – “annoy” and “inspire” are closer to “annoyed” and “inspired” than “overwhelm” is to “overwhelmed”.

So to close this post, here are the final overall rankings for “closeness” of verbs and present participial adjectives:

Test #1 rankingTest #2 rankingTest #3 rankingOverall
excite53 (tie)45
overwhelm13 (tie)53
amaze43 (tie)34

“Annoy” is the clear winner, followed not too distantly by “inspire”.

Since I still have the data that I used in the last post, I can tell you that these rankings correlate with the % of uses that were verbs at -0.51 (that is, numerically higher rankings, i.e. 4 and 5, tended to be used as verbs less than as adjectives). That says to me that the words that have a fully established independent life as adjectives tend to have less in common collocation-wise with their verb parents. This makes sense – the average child hears the adjective “exciting” applied to all kinds of activities before he ever learns that light “excites” electrons and has to form the relationship between those two words post hoc. I guess, although I don’t know, that “inspire” and “inspiring” might tend to be acquired much closer to the same time in a child’s life and in more similar situations.

As always, further research is required! Who has a paid BYU corpora membership?

Participial adjectives, very ranked

After not posting for a full month, I have a post that has been on the back burner for at least a year as an idea and half a year as a draft. It definitely falls under the “somebody should have already done this, and nobody has, so I will” category of research, like my THE/hensachi comparison that continues to be the most-read blog post I’ve ever written. In this case, I’m taking another look at a type of word that has interested me for a long time, the participial adjective, adjectives formed from the present or past participles of verbs, like interest/interesting/interested.

The relationship between verbs and adjectives, lightly questioned

It’s tempting to explain both the meanings and grammar of participial adjectives with reference to the verbs that form their bases. The question is, in the mind of a fluent speaker in 2019, are verbs still the bases of participial adjectives? My intuition is that they aren’t, that adjectives like “interesting” enter the lexicon of a typical speaker long before the verb “interest”, and only after much experience of similar words and/or explicit teaching does the relationship between the two become clear and productive.

If my intuition is correct and these are adjectives first and verb derivatives only after some reflection, there are implications for usage and teaching.

On usage, as came up recently in a Twitter discussion with @LinguisticsGirl, the closeness of the relationship between past participial adjectives (e.g. “interested”) to the passive voice of verbs like “interest” has implications for the meanings and grammar of these words.

On meaning, because a passive verb phrase (e.g. “is eaten”) has a patient (the subject) and an implied but sometimes unspecified agent (the object of the preposition “by”), an adjective based on that verb phrase could be thought to also have a patient and an agent. That is, if speakers are actively aware of the relationship between the passive verb phrase “be interested” (where “interested” is a verb) and the participial adjective “interested”, they may believe that the adjective “interested” also has an implied agent, the one who “interests” the subject. To illustrate:

Music bores Sam.

Here, “bore” is verb with an agent (“music”) and a patient (“Sam”).

Sam is bored by music.

Here, the same relationship between agent and patient is rendered with a passive verb phrase- a be-verb and the past participle of “bore”, plus the optional prepositional phrase indicating the agent.

Sam is very bored.

And a be-verb plus adjective. Does the average reader imagine that there must be an agent causing Sam’s current state, as they probably would if the sentence were “Sam is eaten”? To use the example that I used on Twitter, does one assume that “broken rocks” must have been broken by someone or something, or is “broken” just how the rocks are, with no implied cause?

On grammar, we already know that participial adjectives have a variety of prepositions instead of the expected “by” denoting the… let’s just call it the quasi-agent.

100+ Useful Adjective Preposition Collocations 1

This seems to be evidence of the looseness of the relationship between participial adjectives and the passive verb phrases that they resemble. Clearly, at the very least, participial adjectives have some options for prepositions that passive verb phrases don’t. It is tempting to think that the number of possible prepositions after a given participial adjective is related to its prevalence in corpora as an adjective vs. as a verb. More on that at the bottom.

The implications of the relationship between participial adjectives and verbs for teaching seem to be in the approach that one would take if the relationship were strong or weak. If most fluent speakers keep the relationships between verbs like “disturb” and adjectives like “disturbing” active in their minds and use both with similar meanings and at similar rates, it could be more advantageous to teach the verbs along with the rules for generating adjectives more, as the rules could be counted on to be fairly regular, productive, and useful. On the other hand, if speakers keep “disturb” and “disturbing” separate in their minds, use them at very different rates and with different meanings, it could be more useful to ignore or downplay the relationship between the two and focus on statistical fluency and input, encouraging students to see them simply as separate words as input dictates.

The verbs, totally listed

Below, I have some contributions to our understanding of participial adjectives to make. First, here’s a big glob of data, and a bit of explanation afterward.

Verb baseVerb – 3sAdj – presAdj – pastv/total

All of this data came from the iWeb corpus over the spring and summer of 2019, basically built up over time whenever I had a spare 20 minutes or so to look up some words. In most cases, I just thought of a word that I noticed was both a verb and a participial adjective and did the search right away. There was no method to how I settled on words to search for.

The columns are:

  • Verb base: Exactly what you think it is.
  • verb 3s: the number of hits for that verb with its 3rd person singular “s” attached and the verb.3SG tag _v?z*, e.g. dismays_v?z*
  • adj – pres: the number of hits for that verb in its present participle form and the adj.ALL tag _j*, e.g. dismaying_j*
  • adj – past: the number of hits for that verb in its past participle form and the adj.ALL tag _j*, e.g. dismayed_j*
  • v/total: the number of verb 3s hits divided by the number of hits in all 3 categories. I.e., the % of hits that were adjectives instead of verbs.

The reasons that I searched for these categories were related to the limitations of the concordancer. The iWeb corpus (along with COCA and the other BYU-hosted corpora) reliably confuses grammatical categories, for example returning this sentence as an example of interest_v* (“interest” as a verb):

…James and Vugo is that they really have drivers best interest in hand.

I found that the verb form least likely to result in a misclassification of this kind was the third person singular, i.e. “interests” or “dismays”. Note that this reduces but does not eliminate misclassifications (try searching for interests_v* yourself to see). Likewise, interesting_j* and interested_j* reduce but do not eliminate misclassifications of these words as adjectives – it is possible, as is the entire premise of this post, that readers both human and computer get confused as to which uses of “am interested” are passive verb phrases and which ones are adjectives. It is probably less likely that the concordancer gets confused about present participle adjectives, as I certainly have never heard a sentence like “it is interesting me”, but for some verbs like “terrify” confusion is still possible – “terrifying me” does occur in iWeb 68 times.

Results, partly discussed

As a result of the accommodations to the limitations of the concordancer described above, the results have to be taken as ballpark estimates of the relative frequencies of the words in question as verbs or adjectives. The high ranking of “dismay” above gives us a sense that the adjectives “dismaying” and “dismayed” are more common than the verb “dismay”, and that “dismayed” is more common than “dismaying”, but it’s still not clear exactly how much more common in either case.

In the list above, the words are listed in order of v/total. That is, the highest ratios of adjectives are at the top of the list, and the lowest are at the bottom.

The data gives some support to the idea that at least for certain participial adjectives, their uses as adjectives far outnumber their uses as verbs. These participial adjectives include conversation and coursebook staples like “amazing” and “embarrassed”, but also some oddballs like “hearten” and “enthrall”. At the low end are words like “consider” whose main life is still as a verb and is only rarely used as an adjective (e.g. “in my considered opinion”) and last-minute addition “trigger”, which at the moment has no present participle adjective hits but is sure to change in the coming years.

It’s hard to extrapolate this data to answer the question, “how close is the relationship between ‘disturb’ and ‘disturbing’ in the average speaker’s brain?”, but it certainly seems compatible with my hypothesis that at least in the case of words like “amazing”, the adjective is capable of surviving on its own without analogy to the verb “amaze”. It stands to reason that a word that outnumbers another word 133:1 in frequency, as “amazing” does with “amazes”, probably can afford to pay its own rent, so to speak. And yes, I am using obtuse metaphors as a way of avoiding questions of psycholinguistics or neurolinguistics which I have absolutely no right to pretend to be able to answer.

The iWeb corpus an other corpora are less useful for semantic analysis, but it seems to me that many of the words high on the list here have gaps between the meanings of the verbs and their related adjectives – “disturb” doesn’t have all the same nuances as “disturbing” or “disturbed”, and “amaze” certainly doesn’t have the Kardashian-like connotations of “amazing”.

(At this point in the post, I vanished for at least 15 minutes unfruitfully searching for a clip of Dong Nguyen from Kimmy Schmidt saying “amaaazing”.)

In closing, the reader is invited to take from the data what lessons they will. I humbly suggest that one lesson that is not compatible with the data is that for all participial adjectives, the relationships between the adjectives and the verbs that they are based on are obvious and productive.

The same data, differently manipulated

For kicks, here is the same list, but in order of ratio of present participle adjectives to all adjectives:

Verb baseadj – presadj – past% pres

According to this list, these sentences should sound extremely wrong to you:

“The news was just flooring.”

“Critics are highly rating of that movie.”

“The President was totally rationalizing of his behavior.”

Again, I will mostly leave the implications to you, but I count this as at least compatible with the idea of letting input address at least the less common ones and only explicitly teaching the most common/most equally distributed.

Preposition options, negatively correlated

Last, to test my dropped breadcrumb from earlier about non-“by” prepositional complements, I added up all the hits for all prepositions following the word in its past participle form, but without a verb or adjective tag, i.e. dismayed _i*. I then divided the number of hits for “by” by the total number of preposition hits, giving me a sense of how often the preposition following the past participle of that verb is “by”. For verbs that are interpreted only as verbs and never as adjectives, we would expect a higher number, because “Salads are eaten by yoga practitioners” but not “Salads are eaten of yoga practitioners” grammatically describes the relationship between the patient and agent for “eaten”. On the other hand, we expect a bit of noise in these results, as “Salads are eaten at restaurants” remains possible, as does “Salads were eaten up“. Indeed, only 33% of prepositions following “eaten” are “by”, although “by” is indeed the top hit.

The following are (is?) a random group of 11 words from the earlier list that I did the above search for:

Verb basev/adjs% of prep results that are “by”

Interestingly, the ratio of non-“by” prepositions after a given word did correlate with its ratio of hits as adjective to verb at -0.65. That is, the more often a word was used as an adjective vs. a verb, the more often it had prepositions other than “by” following it. Verbs marked with an asterisk had prepositions other than “by” as their top hit (“bored” had two prepositions above “by”, “of” and “with”).

Again, this speaks the possibility that in the minds of most fluent speakers, these participial adjectives are not explicitly or actively related to the verbs that etymologically form their bases. It stands to reason, although it isn’t proved here, that on other issues including the implied existence of an agent and the semantic relationship between the passive voice and the past participle adjective are less close than some casual linguists, language teachers, and coursebooks seem to assume.

Did I mention that my university has a half-term break right now? Don’t expect another post like this until at least December.

Addendum, just added

On the “close relationship” between participial adjectives and verbs, some readers have pointed out that I could have been more precise in what I meant. Here, I hope to flesh out some of the various ways that the two could be “related” without, again, treading too hard on territory outside my expertise with phrases like “instantiated in the brain” or “sharing an entry in the mental lexicon”.

Semantic relationships

I can think of 3 ways that these verbs and adjectives might be semantically related: number of meanings, state/action, and degree.

On meaning specifically, consider these three definitions from

  • disturb
  • verb (used with object)
  • to interrupt the quiet, rest, peace, or order of; unsettle.
  • to interfere with; interrupt; hinder:
    • Please do not disturb me when I’m working.
  • to interfere with the arrangement, order, or harmony of; disarrange:
    • to disturb the papers on her desk.
  • to perplex; trouble:
    • to be disturbed by strange behavior.
  • disturbing
  • adjective
  • upsetting or disquieting; dismaying:
    • a disturbing increase in the crime rate.
  • disturbed
  • adjective
  • marked by symptoms of mental illness:
    • a disturbed personality.

Notice that only one of the meanings listed for the verb is similar to the present participle adjective, and none are similar to that of the past participle adjective (except metaphorpically). Even a grammatically ambiguous sentence can be interpreted as clearly a verb or clearly and adjective based on meaning:

The “do not disturb” sign is out, but clearly we’re being disturbed.

His collection of loose toenails is disturbing.

He’s clearly disturbed, judging by his interest in feet.

Based on these examples, “disturb” has a loose relationship to its participial adjectives. If you do a similar search to that I did above, but for “amaze”, you will see that some verbs and participial adjectives retain very similar meanings. I don’t have any quantitative way to refer to this, but let’s just say the fewer meanings are the same or similar, the less close the relationship.

Perception as a state or action is usually more of a difference between verbs and adjectives as grammatical categories, but my verbs are mostly stative – that is, they refer to a state of being rather than a discrete action, and therefore collocate more than adverbs of intensity than adverbs of frequency, just like adjectives. However, for at least some of the verbs above, there will be an option for an action rather than state meaning:

  • He disturbs me at work every day, and he is disturbing me right now. (action)
  • Your lack of faith disturbs me. (state, verb)
  • Your lack of faith is disturbing. (state, adjective)

Clearly, the action meaning is unavailable for the adjectives. What this means for “closeness” of verbs and adjectives is that if a verb has a possible meaning as an action verb, it could be said to be less close to its participial adjectives, which naturally don’t.

Last, for degree, adjectives unlike verbs are usually perceived as gradable – attributing some quality to nouns to varying degrees, as specified by adverbs like “a little” or “very”. There are exceptions like “unique” (at least according to some) or “freezing”, but the key area of interest for us is the extent to which verbs share these qualities with their participial adjectives, regardless of what those particular qualities are. For example, the verb “amaze” seems to have the same ungradability as its adjectives “amazing” and “amazed”:

  • It absolutely amazes me.
  • I am absolutely amazed.
  • It’s absolutely amazing.

But “compel” seems not to be not as gradable, or not gradable in the same ways, as “compelling” or “compelled”:

  • Δ It doesn’t compel me very much.
  • It’s not very compelling.
  • Δ I’m not very compelled.

Curiously, “compel” as a verb and “compelled” as an adjective seem less gradable than “compelling” as an adjective, perhaps because interpretation of “compel” is so closely tied to the completion of the verb that it usually takes as an infinitive complement. That is, if I “compel” you to wash the dishes, you almost definitely wash the dishes, but if I’m just “compelling” in general, my status as “compelling” doesn’t have a binary on-off status tied to the completion of anything in particular.

I believe that when verbs and adjectives differ in their ability to be seen as gradable or in degrees, they can be said to have a more distant relationship. When they are the same in these respects, their relationship can be described as “close”.

Any other forms of “closeness” will have to wait for another day.

Addendum, added again

Here are some charts showing the relative frequencies of the verb (with the caveats above), the present participle adjective, and the past participle adjective for the top 20 most frequent words in the list (as of this update, at least).

Top 10
Second 10

Since I’m at it, I thought I’d provide a bit of the opposite of what I did in my last addendum – signs of “distance” between verbs and the participial adjectives that come from them.

Date of first use

First, not every participial adjective in this list has a unique dictionary entry at all – devastated, for example, appears in neither nor, although its partners devastating and devastate do. Of those that do, often the first recorded use with a particular meaning is noted, for example “Meaning “dejected, lowered in spirits” is from 1620s.” for depressed from An older first use as an adjective, particularly with a distinct meaning, could speak to a meaning as distinct as ice and cream have to ice-cream (1744).

Age of first use

This is opening an issue that begs for actual data that I don’t have, but if it could be shown that people begin using amaze and amazing at different ages, it could also speak to greater “distance” between these words. On the other hand, if both begin appearing in speech at about the same time, one could simply be a true morphological derivation of the other, formed by rules analogous to a wug test. I believe we are seeing this process of derivation in real time with the birth of the adjective triggered. If future generations of children start using sentences like “He was so triggered” years before they say “The video triggered him”, we can assume that these are distinct words, not just morphologically derived variations on the verb.

Charts, very framed

Last, here are two super handy charts for you to print, frame, and finally replace that picture of your niece with:

<– most likely to be used as an adjective most likely to be used as a verb –>
<– past participle adjectives more common present participle adjectives more common –>


As with the same class last semester, and as happens to me often, I have been spurred to blog by an unusual utterance by a student, or should I say an utterance which in its non-target-likeness highlights an interesting linguistic phenomenon.

Some verbs, like “know”, say something about the mind of the subject of the sentence as well as the mind of the sentence’s speaker. That is, if Kim says, “Eva knows that 3 students will fail the class”, not only Eva but also Kim believes that the proposition “3 students will fail the class” is true. If Kim believes that Eva is wrong about those 3 students, she will probably choose a different verb, like “believe” or “think”, because if Kim says “Eva thinks that 3 students will fail the class”, she avoids giving the impression that she agrees with Eva.

(It’s an interesting question how many clauses deep these verbs have to be before the speaker is no longer presumed to agree with the proposition. For example, if Laura thinks that Kim believes that Eva knows that 3 students will fail the class, is it implied that Laura agrees? Does the factivity of “know” leap out of its clause and infect every person in the sentence, or does one non-factive verb break the chain? I tend to think that if Laura heard a sentence like “Eva knows that 3 students will fail”, but thinks she’s wrong, she’ll change the verb to a non-factive one in relaying that information to someone else.)

As you see from my aside, these verbs are called factive. In short, they imply that the content of noun clause that follows is factual. “Know” is one of these, as are “understand”, “realize”, “prove”, and “remember”.

The error that I saw that inspired this post was the opposite: a verb being used to imply that the content of the noun clause was false, as in “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt”, which all mean that the subject believes or says that the proposition that follows is false. These words, unlike factive verbs, don’t presuppose that the speaker agrees. When the newspaper says, “Dems doubt that Trump will leave willingly”, the newspaper isn’t taking the position that they are right about him. The newspaper is simply relaying the Dems’ state of mind.

(Confusingly for Japanese learners of English, “doubt”, 疑う utagau in Japanese implies that the subject has a sneaking suspicion that the proposition is true, rather than false as it is in English. Another strike against grammar-translation.)

The error that I saw used a factive verb with a negative prefix and was followed by a noun clause that the writer intended to say was false. It was something like “Many people misunderstand that the earth is flat”. The writer, as I understood it, was trying to say that many people believe that the earth is flat, but they are wrong. This left me sitting and re-reading the sentence for a few minutes as I tried to figure out just what seemed so strange about it. I did my customary COCA search and found a relative lack of noun clauses after “misunderstand” compared to “understand”, validating some of my intuition, but it didn’t give me an answer as to why.

One factor that occurred to me is that “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt” still leave the proposition standing on its own two feet epistemologically. They don’t bring up the proposition and in the same breath invalidate it – they just say that the subject disagrees with it. It is still free to exist as a proposition and be believed by other subjects. It seemed perverse to me that “misunderstand” would have a noun clause following it that was presupposed even by the speaker to be false.

As I was typing this though, I remembered “disprove”, which shares with “misunderstand” a factive root and a negative prefix. To my understanding, “disprove” is a true unfactive – if I say “Einstein disproved that matter and energy are distinct”, I am also stating my agreement with Einstein. If we accept the premise that some propositions are true and others are false, the above sentence can only be true if the proposition contained in it (“matter and energy are distinct”) is false. Therefore, the combination of negative suffix with factive verb to mean “the noun clause following this verb is definitely not true” cannot be the source of the strangeness of “misunderstand that…”

Another factor may be that unlike “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt”, and even “disprove”, the speaker’s and the subject’s opinions of the truth of the proposition in “misunderstand” are different. When “Trump disbelieves that” his approval ratings are low, Trump believes that the proposition is false, and the speaker doesn’t take a position on it. When “Einstein disproves that” matter and energy are distinct, Einstein and the speaker agree. However, in my student’s usage of “misunderstand”, the speaker and the subject definitely disagree. “Trump misunderstands that millions of illegals voted”, in my student’s usage, means that Trump believes it, but he is wrong. In my limited exploration of this issue, this is the only case where the speaker uses a verb to imply both that the speaker believes the proposition and that the proposition is false.

Perhaps for an unfactive verb to make sense, as “disprove” does, it has to say not only that the proposition is false, but that the subject is right that the proposition is false. Anything else is uncromulent.

Instances of class Noun

I sometimes find my background in computer science helpful for understanding language – ironically, since computer science often uses language as a metaphor for computing functions. One case where this is true is in understanding the various ways that nouns work in world languages and the difficulties that English learners face in adapting to our particular system.

Let’s say both our learner’s L1 and English both have a similar definition of a “tiger”:

public class Tiger {

//assume I put the necessary constructors etc. here

public static int eyes=2; //static because each Tiger has the same # of eyes

public static int legs=4;

public String name;

boolean hunt(Animal prey) {

//do something

return true;



ESL teachers can probably predict what would happen if this student were called upon to write an essay on these Tigers: lots of sentences like “Tiger is the largest cat in the world” or “Tiger does not live in Africa”. It is a mistake to conclude that this student doesn’t realize that there are many tigers in the world, not just one.

English forces you to declare an instance of class Tiger before you make any reference to its number of eyes or call its hunt() function.

Tiger a_tiger = new Tiger();  //declaring an instance of class Tiger

System.out.println(a_tiger.eyes);  //printing a_tiger’s number of eyes

I know – this isn’t good coding style. At least I can take comfort in the fact that not too many people are interested in both Java and semantics. Saved from criticism by my small audience!

Still, I hope you take my point about English nouns: they refer to instances, rather than classes, by default. We demand that references to Tigers in general need to be plural, because there are many instances of Tigers (I’m just going to keep capitalizing this word) in the world, or that they be marked and elevated with the definite article the, singling out one instance of Tiger to stand for the rest. Both of these are ways of signalling to listeners that we mean something other than actual instances of Tigers, although that is what their form implies. So in English, this would cause an error:


because you can’t refer to the class itself. As in the above examples, you need to (at least appear to) talk about actual Tigers, not just the abstract idea of one.

Meanwhile, in Japanese, the same line produces no error:


It just prints “2”, as one would expect, because Japanese, unlike English, treats nouns as class references by default, as do many other languages. In fact, you can talk quite a lot about classes in Japanese without making any implied reference to actual instances of those classes.

if (Tiger.legs == Human.legs) {



if (Tiger.hunt(Human)) {;


None of this requires us to posit that Tigers or Humans are even real. We can comfortably refer to them as classes and talk about those classes’ features, even imagining interactions between one class and another, without ever letting the wheels touch the ground, so to speak, on actual, flesh-and-blood Tigers.

Tiger Genocide GIF - StreetFighter Sagat Arcade GIFs

This requirement of English for instantiation of nouns is unintuitive for many learners. Countable nouns in English must be referred to as if they were either solitary or in groups, a distinction which we call singular/plural, even when the distinction doesn’t matter (e.g. everybody has “their” own problems). There are uncountable nouns, of course, but as any learner who’s ever gone shopping for “furniture” or “equipment” can tell you, the rules for their deployment are not prima facie clear, nor are there reliable rules for making countable nouns uncountable or vice versa as communication requires (one can refer to breads to mean “many kinds of bread”, but not equipments to mean “many types of equipment”).

This is by no means universal, and our approaches to learners shouldn’t make the naïve assumption that mistakes in English countability or plurals indicate some kind of lack of comprehension that more than one Tiger exists in the world. In many languages, class reference is the default (or definite reference, which I was surprised to find is the case with Farsi), and even in the ones where it isn’t, not all share the particular plural/the cheat code for class reference found in English.

Different languages can treat “reality” differently, or sometimes just appear to. This is a major lesson from learning another language – even if that language is a programming language.

A Taxonomy of Untranslatability

I started this post after hearing Lingthusiasm’s excellent podcast episode (referred by my colleague and work döppelganger Heidi) on this topic, wrote about 800 words before finishing the podcast and realizing that they said pretty much everything I was going to say but with much more finesse. Anyway, I changed the focus a bit and here it is.

Once in a while you’ll come across a listicle like this that tries to convey some of the majesty of world culture through “untranslatable” words. Notably, no list of this type is ever just a list of words in foreign languages without translations… that would be extremely boring. Instead, they usually have English translations for each word with accompanying explanations for why those translations are inadequate, usually something about the unique piquance of the origin language (henceforth OL) missing or some other woo-woo. Of course, nuance often goes missing when one speaker has less information about a word than another; one could argue that adults talking to children or experts talking to non-experts always results in nuance being lost. This could be why talking to children often has the same feeling as cross-cultural communication. When I explain metal to non-metal fans, I get the feeling that only about 60% of my words are being received with their intended meanings. If I were to make a list of words which are untranslatable from my head to the head of someone who actively listens to Justin Timberlake, it would include “Maidenesque”, “djenteel”, and “filth” (as a good thing).

Not just words in other languages, but all words exist differently in the minds of other speakers – even speakers of the same language. Since all communication is a matter of messages being sent and received by people with different lives and therefore different mental representations of words and worlds, one could argue that all language is untranslatable, if our bar for perfect translation is putting the exact same idea in the listener’s head as was in the speaker’s. For example, for a long time my prototype of a “dog” was a friendly but mischievous toy breed, because I grew up with pugs. Obviously, someone who grew up around Golden Retrievers will have a different idea about typical dog qualities, and someone who grew up in hell will have different ideas from both of us based on their long experience with Chihuahuas. When I used the word “dog” with one of these people, I’m not exactly putting into their minds what is in mine, because our experiences have built different conceptions of “dogs”. Instead of circling off certains words as “untranslatable”, we might do better to call all words “imperfectly translatable”, including among native speakers of the same language. This definition doesn’t respect the commonsense view of “translation” as a matter of crossing linguistic/national boundaries, but it does change the unhelpful “translatable or not” dichotomy into a spectrum of difficulty that includes issues of nuance, grammar, and culturally unique concepts. At one end are unique people who have the same denotation of the word “dog” as referring to a 4-legged furry companion animal but necessarily different personal experiences with dogs, and at the other end citizens of different planets whose languages either are dance-based or feature non-linear conceptions of time, and neither of which has carbon-based life (or by extension, dogs). They would probably write (or dance) some very interesting listicles.

We should also keep in mind that words “not existing in (language)” is a readily fixable problem: when speakers of that language start using those words, then they are words in that language. In that sense, “schadenfreude” is as much a word in English as “skirt” or “scaffold” (although marked for the time being as foreign in origin, while the others have lost that distinction). Lists of foreign words can easily become lists of English words if English speakers pick up on them and start using them – every nam pla is a potential future ketchup, and every ikigai is a possible candidate for kaizen.

uncaptioned image
Source. Note that they get the pronunciation wrong – why not just ask someone on Twitter?

Now, you should listen to the podcast episode linked at the top of this post to get some more nuts-and-bolts reasons that translation is difficult, but if you’re interested in why people persist in using the label “untranslatable” for socio-cultural reasons, I think I have a decent taxonomy of reasons below.

Continue reading “A Taxonomy of Untranslatability”

Justified adjectivization

This post springs from, but then quickly digresses thoughtlessly from, a question from a student about the difference between the adjectives “justifiable” and “justified”.

My answer at the time, that the difference was whether the process was capable of being applied or had been applied, was probably too first-principlesy to be useful. I probably should have directed her to COCA and let her work back to that conclusion from examples. Incidentally, after doing so myself, it turns out that “justified” is much more common overall, and especially more common in post-hoc rationalizing. That squares with what I said, but I could have found a more brain-friendly way of putting it.

(I find I have to force myself not to correct dangling modifiers these days, perhaps out of some misplaced notion of descriptivism – did you notice the one in the last paragraph? To me, it’s like an ingrown hair that the doctor has ordered me to leave be.)

Continue reading “Justified adjectivization”

A chunky good man

My first instinct when confronted with a hot political controversy is to go over the language used to express it with a fine-toothed comb*. It is in this spirit that I noticed the great frequency with which the chunk “a good man” being thrown about in reference to the recent Kavanaugh hearings, either for Kavanaugh himself or good men in the abstract.

Example courtesy of Lindsay Graham:

This good man should not be destroyed. If you legitimize this process by one vote short, woe be unto the next person.

My first thought was that if they had nominated a woman like Amy Coney Barrett instead, and she had had similar alleged incidents in her past, this rhetorical nugget would be unavailable for her defense. No phrase of similar cultural heft exists for women, although the phrase “a good woman” is just as grammatically possible as “a good man”. My guess as to why is that while the image that the phrase “good man” conjures up in people’s minds is an archetype of competence, dependability, and bonhomie (emphasis on the homme), “good woman” only vaguely summons the idea of something like a loyal wife. Woe be unto any woman nominated for a high position who needs her character defended with reference to implicit cultural norms.

blur close up focus gavel
PIctured: The tool of a good man, not a good woman. Photo by Pixabay on

I did a quick search of BYU’s corpora to see if the linguistic record backs up my instincts.

The string “a good man” gets 12372 hits on iWeb and 1643 on COCA.

Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 10.00.14.png
I’ll leave it to you to dig into the contexts.

Meanwhile, “a good woman” gets 1807 on iWeb and 262 on COCA.

Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 9.59.43.png

That’s almost 7x the frequency on iWeb (the larger of the two corpora) and more than 6x in the other.

COCA, unlike iWeb, allows you to separate hits by their source (magazines, academic journals, spoken, etc.), yielding a bit more information of what kinds of contexts “a good man” and “a good woman” are typically uttered in.

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Within that about 6x overall on COCA, “a good man” is used about 10x as often in spoken contexts, 5x in fiction, 5x in magazines, 8x in newspapers, and almost 4x in academic writing. For some reason, Bush’s first term in particular also sees a spike in use of “a good man” – perhaps this relates to the politics of that time, including the 2004 election, where adherence to certain conceptions of manhood were a subtext for the Kerry and Bush campaigns.

For comparison, “man” and “men” occur a total of 582,307 times in COCA vs. 483,248 times for “woman” and “women”. This means that “a good man” does indeed occur much more often relative to “a good woman” than one would predict if the phrase were simply a matter of combining parts of speech according to the rules of grammar. “A good man” is a chunk bordering on an idiomatic expression for a certain, known, type of person, like a “people person” or a “person of faith”. This particular type of person’s goodness seems to depend on their not being a woman.

(* The iWeb Corpus lists “fine tooth comb” as about 3x as frequent as “fine toothed comb”, neither with a hyphen. This makes my usage rather pedantic to the point of being functionally incorrect.)

The simple present, unsimplified

Since I started my hobby/rigorous research pursuit of conducting Google Forms surveys on grammar, I have been thinking about the big one.  The one that combines the most assumptions and nuance and the simplest form into a wad of meaning with white dwarf-like density, which is maximally unbalanced in its complexity and the earliness and brevity with which it is treated in grammar textbooks.  The big one is, of course, the present simple.

This is going to be a long post.

Continue reading “The simple present, unsimplified”