Saturday, August 28, 2010

Crash blossoms

Recently the term "crash blossom" has come into use to mean a news headline so clipped and ambiguous that it becomes nearly impossible to get the correct reading the first time around. The term comes from the headline "Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms", which on first glance might garner the interpretation that some violin-playing individual has something to do with something called "crash blossoms" owned or manufactured by some company JAL. In actuality the store is about a plane crash victim blossoming into a superb musician. You can check out all sorts of other examples at and Language Log (e.g., here). The reason behind this is that as we read, we construct a possible syntactic structure in our head, and when you have long strings of words where each one can be either a noun or a verb, you runs into problems. For instance, in "crash blossoms", "crash" can be a noun or a verb; "blossoms" can likewise be a plural noun or a 3rd person singular verb form.

I came across a gem the other day: "Stabbings suspect an enigma". This isn't a crash blossom that's genuinely ambiguous if you semantically interpret every word as you go, but apparently I was reading a little too fast for myself when I looked over this, because all I really saw was "N-pl V.3rd NP", which would get interpreted as some stabbings suspecting the existence of an enigma. Obviously that's not the right interpretation. Really what you get is two NPs with an omitted copula. This is not the type of thing that would be ambiguous even for a second in spoken language, since the noun and verb forms of "suspect" have differing stress. But then this type of headline isn't the kind of thing that would be spoken at all, which is why we get some great garden path sentences from terse copy editors.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

My computer

Over at Not Always Right one contributor recounted a humorous tech support tale about a customer who didn't understand the command "double-click on My Computer": "How can I click on your computer? You must be thousands of miles away!" Besides the obvious humor of misinterpretation (easily understood for the technologically illiterate, since the PC standard system icon "My Computer" co-opted a regularly occurring noun phrase), there's an interesting issue about prosody.

For me, "double-click on my computer" and "double-click on My Computer" are not pronounced identically. My guess is that this is true for the majority of English speakers, or at least native ones (feel free to submit dissenting opinions below). Because "my" is a functional morpheme indicating possession, it often ends up cliticized onto the noun it modifies. While many speakers have the full [maj] in careful speech, rapid speech will often produce simply unstressed [mə] in many dialects. In many languages this reduction has gone a step further, so that the possessive morpheme is now phonologically and morphologically bound to the noun in question. In my own speech, this destressing is realized by "my" getting only secondary stress, rather than primary stress, in a sentence like "double-click on my computer". On the other hand, when we're talking about "My Computer" qua shortcut to hard drive contents in Windows systems, the otherwise identical phrase takes on a new life. "My" is no longer just a clitic. In my own speech this is realized as primary stress on both "my" and the second syllable in "computer".

The presence of absence of destressing in certain words can thus give us clues to meaning and the parsing of certain phrases. For instance, if I'm on the phone with tech support and they tell me to double-click on jɔɹ mjuzɪk, I'm going to assume that there's some specific system folder I'm unaware of that's labeled "Your Music", whereas if they tell me to double-click on jɹ̩ mjuzɪk, I'm going to assume they want me to open the folder where I keep my music.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Just north of my apartment there's a popular diner that has their own printed paper placemats. Printed on these are various slogans of the general form "Take time to X, it is the Y of Z", e.g., "Take time to THINK, it is the source of power." Leaving aside the somewhat obvious nonsensicalness of othese platitudes, they use an interesting form of ellipsis that caught my eye (or maybe my language faculty). Perhaps ellipsis isn't even the right word, because what I noticed is the odd reference of "it" in these cases. In "take time to think", "think" is a verb, whereas "it" in the second clause is a noun, and refers to a noun. So how can this be? Pragmatically there's no ambiguity, and I'm sure most people don't even notice that the construction's strange: obviously thinking or thought is what is intended to be "the source of power" (hence the old syllogism "Knowledge is power; power corrupts. Study hard; be evil."). Though it's fairly easy to parse, I can't even remember coming across such a construction before, where a pronoun refers back to something that's technically the wrong category. This seems somehow different from pragmatically instantiated referents, because the referent is in one way overtly present (the verb "think"), but in another way completely absent (there's no gerund or noun "thinking" or "thought").