“Merry” Sue Coleman?

This one doesn’t have to do with semantics, but it seems like a Language Log post-to-be, and so I thought I’d beat them to the punch.

The beloved president of the University of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman, is retiring soon, and she was recognized for her twelve years of service at last Saturday’s home football game against Nebraska.  (Michigan lost, btw.)  She spoke to the crowd during this recognition ceremony at half-time, and she sounds, well, a little more “Merry” than “Mary”:

Today, the University is responding to allegations that she was inebriated with the following story:

. . . during her remarks she used a wireless microphone with which she was not experienced . . . There was significant wind that caused the sound to be delayed and distorted and created feedback during President Coleman’s speech.

Now, IANAP (I am not a phonologist), so I wonder if any of you, dear readers, know if speaking on a wireless microphone at a football stadium can cause you to sound drunk.

Why ask why?

More and more, I’ve become interested in the (often unspoken) connections between sentences in the same discourse. For instance, when someone says

I’m happy. I passed the exam.

they often actually mean

I’m happy because I passed the exam.

and not, for instance,

I’m happy despite the fact that I passed the exam.

or even worse

I’m happy that a small monkey from outer space told my sixth grade teacher that it would be a lie to say that I passed the exam.

So, why can we imagine / pretend that we hear certain connections between sentences, but not others?

One possibility is that sentences tend to raise certain common (or conventional?) questions, which need not be spoken. Subsequent sentences can answer these questions:

I’m happy. <Why?> I passed the exam.

“Why?” sounds natural after almost any statement (just hang out with your average 3-to-4-year old), but questions like “What might have prevented this?” or “What did a small monkey from outer space tell your sixth grade teacher that it would be a lie to say?” just don’t come up as often. Other common follow-ups are:

  • What happened next?
  • Give me an example.
  • So what? / Why do I care?

This is not really an explanation of the original observation, merely a restatement.  So, at the risk of sounding like a 90’s commercial, why ask why? Why are we so fascinated by causes?

Focus Binding IVa: Paycheck Pronouns

[Part of my series on Focus Binding.]

Imagine the following payroll database at Industrial Linguistix Inc:

Employee Paycheck # Type
Noam 001 Direct Deposit
Morris 002 US Mail
Barbara 003 Direct Deposit
Irene 004 Direct Deposit

The HR director of ILI might look at this database and make the following observation (cf. Cooper 1979):

Morris gets his paycheck in the mail.  Everyone else gets it via Direct Deposit.

Now, there is an odd (and presumably false) reading of this short discourse, wherein Morris gets paycheck #002 in the mail and everyone else gets paycheck #002 too, but the rest of the employees get #002 via Direct Deposit. This goes against what we know about paychecks (only one person can get a paycheck), though, so the better reading for this observation is as follows:

Morris gets paycheck #002 in the mail.
Noam gets paycheck #001 via Direct Deposit.
Barbara gets paycheck #003 via Direct Deposit.
Irene gets paycheck #004 via Direct Deposit.

The mystery is: how does this simple pronoun it in the second sentence come to refer to so many different paychecks? It does not seem like a normal bound pronoun, because it does not co-vary with another element in the sentence. Instead, it covaries with an item related to another element in the sentence: the paycheck related to the employees quantified over by everyone else.


Paper checks — a relic of the past?

More examples of this type of pronoun, underlined below:

The woman whose surgery cured her was happier than the woman whom it paralyzed for life. (cf. Karttunen 1969)

Every man loves his mother, but no man marries her. (Jacobson 1999)

Every pilot who shot at it hit the MiG that was chasing him. (Bach-Peters sentence)

These pronouns relate a woman to his surgery, a man to his mother, and a pilot to the MiG chasing him. Very similar sentences relate times to individuals:

10 years ago, the president was a Republican, but now he is a Democrat.

Watch this space for the exciting conclusion to this post, wherein we discover how focus binding can explain paycheck pronouns. Meanwhile, what’s your favorite paycheck pronoun?

Voicemail Semantics

Autoanswer-mikrokasseteI vaguely remember discussing, one day in class at MIT, the meanings of indexicals (squirmy little words that change with the context in which they are spoken) in answering machine messages:

You‘ve reached the Joneses. We‘re not here right now, so please leave a message.

Now that I’m all grown up and have a class of my own, I use this exercise as way to pump everyone’s intuitions about these words.  I first have my students write down what they think these words mean (or refer to) in general. Only then do I ask them what they might mean in a voicemail message (which in some ways is worse than an answering machine).

Many reasonable definitions for indexicals fail in the context of a voicemail greeting:

  • You is not some specific person the speaker has in mind, because they have no idea who will call them (think: wrong number!).
  • I/We/Me is not the entity creating the sound wave which conveys the utterance — that’s the caller’s phone.
  • Here is not the caller’s location, or the location of the cell phone, or the cell phone owner, or even the computer where the voicemail is stored.
  • Now is not (usually) when the speaker spoke; rather, it is when the listener is hearing the message. But imagine leaving a voicemail saying “it’s now 6PM, and I should be home by 10PM if you’d like to try again”…

Endless debates ensue, of course…

(P.S., I just found an article all about this topic: http://aardvark.ucsd.edu/language/ans_machine_phil_compass.pdf .)

Focus Binding III: Representing Reference

Note: This post continues my series on focus and pronoun interpretation.

Visibilium Omnium…

Here is a highly simplified way of thinking about how we keep track of who and what we are thinking about. Imagine that every time someone or something wanders into view, we add them to a board in our brains, not unlike Stephen Colbert’s “On Notice” Board.


Just to make things easier, though, we’ll number the items on our board. Let’s assume that at the start of a conversation (whatever that is!), the board is empty. When someone (like Jane Fonda or Michael Adams) wanders by, we add them to the board:

  1. Jane Fonda
  2. Michael Adams

As a first approximation, assume that any pronoun can refer to any item on the board. How should we represent the scenario where a speaker intends for the pronoun she to refer to Jane Fonda? Well, if the board is set up as shown, we can represent this using an index:

What is she1 doing here?

Of course, we will want to prevent the index 2, which is linked to a man, from appearing on a feminine pronoun like she.  In fact, there are many, many ways to index pronouns to items incorrectly. This system is just the start of a theory of pronoun reference, a way to represent the various possible references. The next step is to figure out the rules of which pronouns can refer to which items on the board and how items are added and removed from the board.

…et Invisibilium

One step towards this theory is to notice that items can make it onto the board even if they are not currently in plain view of the speakers.  Mere mention of someone is (often) enough to put them on the board. For instance, after the utterance of

I can refer to Obama even though I have never seen him in person.

I can refer to Obama even though I have never seen him in person.

President Obama was on TV this morning.

the board seems to update as follows:

  1. Jane Fonda
  2. Michael Adams
  3. President Obama

And a subsequent sentence can now refer to Obama:

He3 was complaining about the House of Representatives.

Abstraction & Focus Binding

What about bound pronouns, though? What should we put into slot 4 to give the right meaning to this sentence:

No  girl in my class forgot her4 homework.

To deal with these cases, linguists use a process known as abstraction, which in a way allows you to talk directly about the board itself, instead of just the items on the board. For instance, one way to represent the meaning of the previous sentence is as follows:

No way of filling in slot 4 on the board with a girl in my class will make the following sentence true: “She4 forgot her4 homework.”

Similarly, we want focus binding to be able to discuss the board itself, giving the sentence

Kennedy looked good. People voted for him5.

the meaning

Kennedy looked good. There’s a way to fill slot 5 on the board with a name that would be unaccented in the same position that makes the following true: “People voted for him5.”

Since the name Kennedy would be unaccented there, this means the same thing as “People voted for Kennedy.” Seems like a roundabout meaning for something simple, but it does allow us to generate sloppy identity cases:

Kennedy looked good. People voted for him5. Nixon looked bad. People didn’t vote for him5.

can mean

Kennedy looked good. There’s a way to fill slot 5 on the board with a name that would be unaccented in the same position that makes the following true: “People voted for him5.” Nixon looked bad. There’s a way to fill slot 5 on the board with a name that would be unaccented in the same position that makes the following true: “People voted for him5.”

This maintains the exact same meaning for the elided verb phrase in both cases, and yet allows Kennedy to fill slot 5 the first time, and Nixon to fill slot 5 the second time. (The second time, either name would be unaccented.)

Focus Binding IIb: Sloppy Identity Unbound

Consider the following examples, with ellipsis indicated by strikethrough and co-reference indicated by color:

  1. Kennedy_NixonDArticles that portray him as conservative never bother Obama as much as articles that don’t portray him as conservative bother Romney.
  2. A boy that annoyed Mary asked her for another cookie. A boy that annoyed Sally did ask her for another cookie too.
  3. Kennedy looked good. People voted for himNixon looked bad. People didn’t vote for him.

In the previous post in this series, we learned about sloppy identity. This phenomenon allows a pronoun to shift meaning from its spoken occurrence (the green pronouns above) to its elided occurrence (the orange pronouns above).  For instance, in sentence 3, the green him refers to Kennedy, while the orange him refers to Nixon.

The last post also explained the difference between free and bound pronouns, and claimed that only bound ones can lead to sloppy identity in an ellipsis site. However, the cases in (1) – (3) above are counterexamples to this claim, because similar sentences with quantifiers instead of names (the classic set up for bound pronouns) sound odd under the binding indicated by color:

  1. Articles that portray him as conservative never both every politician.
  2. A boy that annoyed every woman asked her for another cookie.
  3. Every candidate looked good.  People voted for him.

This argument is a little tricky, so it bears reiteration, point by point:

  • On the face of it, it is unclear whether the green pronouns in (1) – (3) are bound or not.
  • However, since the cases with quantifiers in (4) – (6) don’t sound good, it is quite likely that the similar (green) pronouns in (1) – (3) are not bound.
  • Linguists have long claimed that only bound pronouns give rise to sloppy identity.
  • However, the orange pronouns in (1) – (3) are examples of sloppy identity, since their meanings are different from the corresponding green pronouns.
  • Therefore, there must be another method of generating sloppy identity readings.

In post I of this series, we learned that certain pronouns pick up their referents due to focus structure, a phenomenon I referred to as “focus binding.” In subsequent posts, I will argue that focus binding itself sets up the environment necessary to allow sloppy identity.

GitHub Linguistics

The ProfHacker blog recently hosted a series of posts on GitHub, which is generally used as an online collaboration/version control/code sharing system for programmers. I have never used GitHub (mitcho suggested I post my tree drawing software there, but I haven’t done it yet), but ProfHacker got me thinking about how linguists might use GitHub.

This would be a lot easier on GitHub

This would be a lot easier on GitHub

The blog posts concentrated on how this resource might be used for non-discipline-specific academic tasks, for instance, saving versions of your syllabus (which someone else could “fork” and change for themselves) or collaborating with co-authors around the world. But perhaps we could put GitHub to some more radical uses:

  • Truly massive collaboration on a paper, with people able to fix typos, make/suggest changes, and add data from their own language/area of expertise.
  • Easier workflow for authors and editors/typesetters to work together on a manuscript.
  • Projects in formalized grammars like HPSG, which are even closer to computer code, what GitHub excels at.
  • I could imagine developing some sort of format halfway between an academic paper and a formal, computationally-implemented grammar, like “pseudo-code” for linguistics theories.  This format could be a less wordy way to simply present the theory without arguments for it.
  • Regression testing for theories — collaboratively edited lists of data points that a theory of X should cover.

Any other ideas?

Focus binding IIa: sloppy identity

In my first post on focus binding, I hypothesized that unaccented pronouns must refer to individuals whose names would also be unaccented in the same context. In this post and the next, I will explore the nature of this constraint.

Free vs. Bound Pronouns

Linguists like to distinguish two types of pronouns: free and bound. Free pronouns pick up their referents from the context — and not just the linguistic context. For instance, imagine if we turned on the TV and saw this:

Conan Jumps

I could exclaim something like “Where’s he going?” or “What’s his problem?” or “He’s at it again!” and it would be clear that the pronouns he and his refer to Conan.

Bound pronouns, on the other hand need not even have a referent;  rather, they pick up their meaning in relation to another term in the sentence. For instance, in

No girl in my class brought her homework.

the pronoun her is linked to the quantifier no girl. Here, there is clearly no specific girl for her to refer back to.  Instead, what the sentence means is something like:

There’s no girl in my class whose name can truthfully fill in these blanks: _____ brought _____’s homework.

It is generally agreed that bound pronouns must be c-commanded by their antecedents, due to the lack of a bound pronoun reading for sentences like this:

She brought no girl’s homework.

The pronoun she here must be free (perhaps referring to the teacher) and therefore, this sentence cannot be synonymous with the previous one. Now, this all raises the interesting question of whether a pronoun whose (c-commanding) antecedent is not a quantifier is free or bound.  For instance, is his below free or bound?

John loves his dog.

As we will see in the next section, the answer is yes.

Sloppy Identity

Boy_and_His_Dog_DrawingVP ellipsis is a construction where you leave out a verb phrase on analogy to a previous one.  For instance, it’s a little awkward to say:

John loves his dog, and Bill loves his dog, too.

Much better to leave out the VP the second time (adding the pleonastic verb do) to achieve a synonymous sentence:

John loves his dog, and Bill does love his dog, too.

Linguists like to think that the VP is still “there” in some sense, but it is not pronounced.

Notice that these sentences are ambiguous: if John’s dog is Billingsgate P. Pupsqueak, MD and Bill’s is Trotto von Bonesmark, then Bill may love John’s dog, Dr. Pupsqueak, or his own dog, von Bonesmark. We call the reading that preserves the same dog owner in both cases the strict identity reading, and the one where the pronoun shifts from one boy to the other the sloppy identity reading.

Now, theorists of ellipsis have proposed that the unspoken VP must be an exact copy of the previous, spoken VP (modulo agreement perhaps). How, then, can we have two different meanings?  Well, we can if the first VP itself is ambiguous! The strict reading arises when the pronoun his is free, and therefore picks up the meaning “John” from the context somehow.  Since the context is presumably similar throughout the sentence, this type of pronoun will keep its meaning in both locations, yielding the strict reading.

However, imagine if the pronoun were bound instead of free.  It could still mean the same thing in the first clause, because its only c-commanding antecedent is John.  But, its exact copy in the missing VP slot of the second clause has a different c-commanding antecedent: Bill.  Hence, a bound pronoun in VP ellipsis yields the sloppy reading.

Next (half) Post: What sloppy identity tells us about focus bound pronouns.

And now…

No. 1 The Larch

Last summer, I made a bare-bones syntax tree application entirely in javascript, which I’m calling the Larch Tree Drawer, after the Monty Python sketch. The software:

  • Is written entirely in JavaScript, so it can do fast real-time updating.
  • Creates a png image which can be easily copied elsewhere.
  • Uses efficiently spaced trees (see [1])
  • Automatically closes brackets.
  • Automatically opens brackets (triggered by an ALL-CAPS node label)

Check it out and let me know any bugs and/or feature requests. I’m considering an option to output qtree-style latex code, but I haven’t implemented it yet.  Also, I know that the dimensions of the png files are a little too large right now.

Using the default options can feel a little weird, but you’ll soon see how fast it can be to input standard trees.  For instance, type “S NP” and you’ll see:


Then, add “John] VP” to get:


Round it out with “V loves] NP Semantics” to get:


And you only needed two brackets!

[1] An algorithm from http://billmill.org/pymag-trees/ based on:

Buchheim, Christoph, Michael Jünger, and Sebastian Leipert. “Improving Walker’s algorithm to run in linear time.” Graph Drawing. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2002.

Walker, John Q. “A node‐positioning algorithm for general trees.” Software: Practice and Experience 20.7 (1990): 685-705.

Focus binding I: focus & pronouns

Note: I just finished a paper on pronouns (available here), but for those who’d rather read 40+ dense pages, I will serialize it here.  Please comment at will below or on facebook!

If I were to ask you

Who does John like?

and you knew that John was enamored of Bill, you might answer

John likes BILL. 

with an accent on Bill and none on John. It sounds pretty odd to answer this question with the accent shifted to John instead of Bill:

??? JOHN likes Bill. 

Linguists who study focus theory call old, reused material like John GIVEN and new information like Bill FOCUSED. Next, imagine that you answered with a pronoun in the position where John had been:

He likes BILL.

It still sounds best to accent Bill and it’s pretty odd again to accent he.  One more thing, though: the pronoun he pretty much has to refer to John; otherwise, you wouldn’t really be answering the question.  So, it seems as though the pronoun must refer to the person whose name is unaccented/GIVEN in the same position.

This pattern repeats in other constructions where focus determines accents:




Sherlock’s INTELLECT EXCEEDS his PATIENCE  [=Sherlock’s patience]

Here again, the pronoun his prefers to refer to the person whose name is unaccented in the same position (Sherlock) and not the person whose name would be accented (Watson).

Preview of Part II

If focus constrains the interpretation of pronouns, are such cases more like bound pronouns or more like free pronouns? How could we even tell? (Hint: I don’t call it “focus binding” for nothing!)