Saturday, November 27, 2010

might didn't

A few weeks ago I caught myself saying "might didn't". When it came out I was confused, and assumed, like my cohorts, that it was a speech error. But the next day I did a bit of google searching, and realized that in fact "might didn't" is a construction associated with the use of double modals, and that perhaps I was successfully integrating double modals into my grammar.

One example: "Great Tools For YouTube And Online Music Streaming You Might Didn't Know Of"

In standard English this would be "Great Tools...You Might Not Have Known Of", or hypercorrect "...Of Which You Might Not Have Known". The "might didn't" construction indicates to me that syntacticians are missing the boat if they claim double modals are merely lexicalied constructions inserted whole into T. "Did" isn't a modal, and there are clear syntactic parallels between "might could" and "might did". What we need is a theory of grammar for double modal dialects that correctly accounts for the pattern of usage, not a theory that best fits standard dialects and half-heartedly accounts for certain superficial aspects of double modal grammars. Personally, I'm interested in a proper syntactic account of double modals because I'm all for accurate description of minority languages and dialects, but I have a feeling that such dialects could also reveal important things about what might could be a part of Universal Grammar.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

past participles

Many verbs in English have three basic forms: a present tense form, which consists of the bare stem (plus -s in 3rd person singular), a past tense form (usually -ed), and a past participle form (often irregular, but quite a few end with -en). Notice I say "many" and not even "most", much less "all". There are infamous examples of verbs like lie/lay/laid vs. lay/laid/lain, which have three distinct forms but overlap in two of them, or teach/taught/taught, which has an irregular past tense and identical past participial form. The participial form appears in perfect constructions such as "I had just gotten to work when the boss walked in" or passives like "The wine was drunk in less than an hour". However, since many such participles are rarely if ever used, some people are uncomfortable using some of them, or simply unaware that a separate form exists. (Test yourself: I have swum, or I have swam? Swum is the historical past participle.) While I am somewhat of a past participle enthusiast, I rarely really notice the substitution of the simple past with verbs like "swim" and "drink". The ones that do strike me as odd are those that I perceive as common, which is why constructions like "was began" catch my ear. "Begin" is significantly more common than "swim", as evidence by the 106,952 hits for "began" in COCA versus the 2,069 for "swam". Likewise, "begun" gets 19,007 hits while "swum" only gets 186. And note that the "begin" to "swim" ratio is twice as high in the participial form than in the past. I think it's for this reason that constructions like "was began" strike me as odder than mere "had swam". COCA gets 26 hits for "had began" versus 4,865 for "had begun", and 3 for "had swam" versus 59 for "had swum". In other words, the past-for-participle substitution rate for "swim" is an order of magnitude higher than for "begin" (.5% for "begin", 5% for "swim"). At this point in the evening I'm not about to embark on a frequency analysis journey, but my guess would be you'd find similar patterns for many other verbs: past-for-participle substitution rates rise as raw usage frequency decreases.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

pre-fixed menu

I saw a nice example of an eggcorn the other day, advertising a "pre-fixed" menu. This is of course referring to the phenomenon of a "prix fixe" menu, where restaurants offer a multi-course meal for a set price (typically one that's cheaper than expected). Even though I don't speak French, I've always thought this phrase was fairly transparent: as an English-speaker, I'm familiar with the fact that French adjectives (like most other Romance languages) have adjectives after the noun -- we even have some traces of it in English, e.g., Attorney-General. And if you know that much, it's not a big stretch from prix fixe --> price fixed --> fixed price. But for someone who's only ever heard the phrase pronounced, the similarity might not be as obvious: /ˌpriːˈfɪks/. This certainly does sound almost identical to a standard pronunciation of "pre-fixed". And since prix fixe menus have a price that's already set, the semantic notion of a menu being "pre-fixed" makes sense as well. Phonetic similarity + semantic compositionality = the perfect scenario for eggcorn formation.

Just for fun, some examples that I found online: