Tag Archives: grammar

In which I am sentimental about diagramming sentences

Enjoyable op-ed in the Times about the history of the soon-to-be-lost art:

By the latter half of the 19th century, chalkboards had become increasingly common in classrooms; for students, the impact of watching a sentence take shape on that large surface as a comprehensible, often elegant, and sometimes downright ingenious drawing must have been significant. It’s hard to believe anyone but the most dedicated pedant could have actually enjoyed parsing, but plenty of students — including me — loved diagramming.

Me too.  It’s funny:  I don’t have any feeling at all that today’s students need to learn the pencil-and-paper algorithm for long division or square root extraction.  But the vanishing of sentence diagrams makes me sad.  Presumably if I were a linguist instead of a mathematician I’d feel the opposite.

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Chomsky’s trace theory, Home Depot, wanna contraction, Semisonic

In Home Depot today with CJ.  In-store soundtrack dominated by 90s guitar pop, e.g. R.E.M.’s cruelly underrated “Stand” and Semisonic’s forgotten-by-me-until-this-afternoon “Closing Time:”

Payoff lyric of the song is

I know who I want to take me home

which is notable for being a really good example of Chomsky’s theory of the trace and wanna contraction.  Per Chomsky, the second clause of this sentence starts life as “I want [who] to take me home,” and subsequently the “who” is dragged to the front by a transformation.  But the silent syntactic “trace” of the word “who” remains in between “want” and “to,” and prevents you from contracting to

I know who I wanna take me home

as you would do (especially were you an overemoting 90s rock vocalist) in other situations where “want” and “to” were adjacent.

I’m impressed with Semisonic if they did this on purpose.  Even more so if they’d gone whole syntax hog and made the lyric

I know whom I want to take me home.

You know what piece of forgotten 90s guitar pop would have fit well on the Home Depot in-store sountrack?  “Valerie Loves Me.”  Jim Ellison, who wrote and sang this, committed suicide in 1996.  Let us listen to this great record and forget about transformational grammar for a while.

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That shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless

I was writing down some mathematical notes and encountered a grammatical intuition that confused me.

  • “X, which is the bound given in (1.2), and which is sharp” sounds fine;
  • “X, which is the bound given in (1.2), and is sharp” sounds weird;
  • “X, which is the bound given in (1.2), and sharp” sounds awful.

I understand why the last one sounds awful; the two verbs, one of which expresses an identity and one a quality, aren’t parallel, despite looking the same. (I guess you could say ‘It depends what the meaning of the word “is” is.’) But why does the second one sound funny? Or am I wrong, and the first two both sound funny? And why does Larkin’s roughly equivalent formulation sound fine?

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