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Lingistics Foo, Part Deux

Very interesting, for the simple fact that approximately 1/4 of the population that answered didn't like Jack is not surprised at what lies she tells, given appropriate context. This, in and of itself, isn't terribly interesting - but nonetheless nice since it proves that there are at least some people who agree with the author that this sentence is annoying enough to want you to change it to something else if you heard it (which is what I always assume "ungrammatical" means in linguistics articles...because usually you can get at what the meaning actually is).

The interesting bit is that I had a conversation with my syntax professor yesterday about questionable data in articles and he says that he often does surveys in the various undergraduate courses he teaches on questionable data - and usually 1/3 of the class doesn't like whatever sentence is supposed to be ungrammatical. Which is good, since it means whatever theory it is fits some portion of the population.

Now this is the part I don't like - if your theory only works for 1/3 of the population, and you're trying to make a "general theory of $foo", how general are you really making it? Particularly if you're going for "universal constraints" on language, which is usually what most of these guys want to do. Le sigh.

This is somewhat akin to a conversation I had with a linguistics guy who came from microbiology that I got to talk to up at UPenn. Basically, in linguistics, just as in biology, the data is usually messy. Biology, however, is perfectly fine with saying, "Woo. Okay, our data is messy. We can explain about 90% of it....and the rest of it we don't know what to do with right now. But the 90% we can explain always works." Or, if it's really controversial, maybe they'll say, "Well, this works about 30% of the time. No, we don't know why. But at least it works for that much."

Linguistics,, on the other hand, seems to have the push towards, "Um...it works 100% of the time! See how it works! Thus we have a theory about the general $foo of language! Wait, don't look at that data over there behind the curtain! Noooooooooooo.....". Though even that is better than, "See how it works for 100% of the data. See this questionable data that it works for!" "Er, but it doesn't always work on that questionable data..." "Yes, it does! Silence, infidel!"

Now, I admit the theoretical areas are more prone to this sort of behavior than the experimental (in fact, I've rarely seen the experimental guys do something quite this egregious - but maybe we just have a good department). Which is why I'm trying to push the gathering of data from at least some portion of the population in my theoretical jaunts. Much better, of course, would be to do a very large survey and some experimental measures to boot - but at least we need to get away from "Well, the author of the paper has these judgments and he's a native speaker, so there you have it."

Graaarg. Okay, my ranting is done.

By the by, for those who were wondering about the exact nature of the sentence in question - the what lies she tells bit was supposed to be an embedded exclamative and it was supposed to be completely ungrammatical when the upstairs "emotive" clause was negated: Jack is not surprised at. (Compared to when the upstairs "emotive" clause is not negated: Jack is suprised at what lies she tells. Which I do admit sounds more natural, but I was wondering if it was due to context or plausibility or some such, rather than straight up ungrammaticality.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 31st, 2004 06:36 am (UTC)
Blech. You shouldn't be able to embed an exclamation like that, and I don't think you can. If it's being an embedded exclamation it's the same as "Jack is surprised at what a load of bollocks", which I don't think even the most liberal reader would accept. It seems clear to me that "Jack is [not] surprised at what lies she tells" is not an embedded exclamation at all, but a yucky fudging of the/which/what/that.
Mar. 31st, 2004 07:02 am (UTC)
Ah - well perhaps that particular author's point isn't proven on even the 1/4 of the population, then. He wants very much for there to be a distinction between the two, and the one without negation to very much have an embedded exclamative.

Though, to be fair, I think he wants embedded exclamatives to be restricted to those that have a verb in them. So, "Jack is surprised at what a load bullocks that is" would be the comparable sentence for this particular author's point. (Though perhaps more plausibly as, "Jack was surprised at what a load of bullocks that turned out to be.")

I'm actually able to get the embedded exclamative when it has a verb in it, and negation doesn't matter for me.
Mar. 31st, 2004 07:26 am (UTC)
Ah, that makes a bit more sense (once the missing 'of' is put in, anyway, and provided one reads bullocks as bollocks). I'm not sure "what lies she told" is really comparable, though - "what lies she told" doesn't make sense if you don't read it with emphasis, where "what a load of bollocks that is" does.

Aha - in the exclamation "what lies she told", the verb isn't acting as a verb at all, it's acting as an adjective. The meaning, exclamatorily, remains that same if it's just "what lies!" This is why it doesn't work - it's effectively "Jack was (not) surprised at WHAT LIES!"
Mar. 31st, 2004 09:33 am (UTC)
Hmmm...interesting. It does seem to be much worse when you have "what a load of bollocks she Verb-ed" vs. "what a load of bollocks that was". Can you get it to work with any kind of Verb in "what a load of bollocks she/he Verb-ed"? [Construct plausible scenarios as necessary, etc. - maybe a different exclamative than the bollocks one, if you think that makes a difference.]
Mar. 31st, 2004 05:59 pm (UTC)
I don't think so. None of those seem to form a standalone sentence except in exclamation form, whereas "what a load of bollocks that is" is a perfectly good sentence.

"What a load of bollocks that is" simply means "that is a load of bollocks", whereas "what lies she told!" means "look at those lies! They're really nasty!" (and similarly "what a load of bollocks" doesn't really mean "that is a load of bollocks" but "goodness, how very bollocky!" - no proper sentence structure).
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


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