Monday, 28 November 2016

Don't you not want some points?

On this week's episode of QI (available on the iPlayer for a few days if you're in the UK), Sandi Toksvig asked Alan Davies the following question:
Don't you not want some points or not? 
The point of QI, if you don't know, is that the questions are all kind of a trick. In this case, the trick is that it's hard to work out what the right answer is, and there's a penalty for a wrong answer.

This question brought about some linguistic chat, all of which ended with Sandi saying that only 'arbitrary pedants' would worry about double negatives, and explaining why the stigma came about in the first place. Gyles Brandreth also took the opportunity to tell us at length how English has half a million words and German only a hundred thousand (I guess it depends how you count them).

But the point here is the difficulty of the piled-up negatives, of course. Let's dispense with the easy one first: the or not at the end caused both Alan Davies and Victoria Coren to claim that it wasn't a yes or no question: it's two questions. WELL. This is technically true, it is two questions, but as I discuss at length in my thesis (and as is generally known; it's not my idea), this is actually one question because yes/no questions are a choice between two alternatives. So that's OK. We can in theory give a yes or no answer to this question. So which is the right one, assuming that you do want points?

WE DON'T KNOW! That's one of the cool things about this question and it's not even because of the double negative! It's because negative questions are inherently ambiguous! Look:
Don't you want some points?
No (I don't want some points)
Yes (??)
We don't always really have a clear sense of what 'yes' means in answer to a negative question. Probably, you feel that it means yes, I do want some points in this case. I do. But it's got to have the right intonation otherwise it doesn't mean anything much, though it can't mean that I don't want points, I don't think.
Do you not want some points?
No (I don't want some points)
Yes (??)
Again, it's not clear, without a sort of contradictory emphasis, what this means. There's tons of research on this which you can read if you're interested. Kramer & Rawlins use examples like the following to show that in fact, the interpretation is likely to be negative in such questions:
Is Alfonso not coming to the party?
No (=he isn't coming)
Yes (=he isn't coming)
So we've already got an issue with this kind of negation. Adding in a double negation, as in the original question, just adds parsing difficulty to the already ambiguous question. It is a real double negative, so it cancels out, as in I don't not like him... or is it double negation as found in many varieties, where one reinforces the other, as in I didn't do nothing or Didn't you not? We just don't know.

What, you thought I was going to answer this one? Nope. Unsolved problem, my friends.

(The 'correct' answer was yes, which is actually not what I'd have gone for: I'd have said it meant something like Isn't it the case that you don't want some points, or is that wrong?, so I'd have answered No, that's not the case. But maybe they went with yes as in Yes, that's true, it isn't the case that....)

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

This adverb is super interesting

The Oxford Times published a whinge about the prefix super- recently (don't click the link; you'll get the idea from this post and like all local papers, the page is full of really annoying adverts that play audio). They're unhappy about the increase in adjectives preceded by super, such as super-strong, super-expensive and super-fit.

The claims about its increased frequency are discussed for American English in this post by Neal Whitman from February this year, and are true. It is getting more common (this is super-unusual, by the way, because normally it's the frequency illusion). Whether the claim that its use over here comes from American English is true or not I don't know; I can't be bothered to check because I don't really care.

What I do care about is whether it really is a prefix in all the examples they mention. Neal has it as an adverb and I instinctively classed it as that as well before I was pointed to his post. Why, though? The Oxford Times' examples are all written with a hyphen, and they explicitly call it a prefix. I also have an intuitive hyphen when it's an attributive adjective rather than predicative (a super-compelling argument vs this argument is super compelling). Whyyyyy??

[Aside: the fact that it can be unambiguously an adjective in examples like This pudding is simply super is irrelevant. Words don't usually have a category* when considered in isolation, and only have categories when considered in context.]

With a noun, as in superyacht, I'd not hesitate to call it a prefix, regardless of whether it's written like that or as super yacht or super-yacht. And when rich is a noun, I'd class it as a prefix (the super-rich ought to pay more taxes), but when it's an adjective it's a more ambiguous (The owner of this company is super rich). This is easily explained: adverbs can't modify nouns, so super (adverb) can't modify a noun like yacht; it must be a prefix meaning something like mega- or über-.

So let's focus on the ambiguous cases where it modifies an adjective, so could be a prefix (like über-strong) or an adverb (like incredibly strong). How do we tell which it is? Intuition is notoriously unreliable.

It would be useful to know if anything else can occur between the putative adverb and the adjective. You couldn't split a prefix from its base (apart from with expletives, like un-bloody-fortunately) but you might be able to put another word between an adverb and an adjective (really very pleasant). I don't think you can with super, but it's not a super-compelling argument; you also can't put anything between very, an undisputed adverb, and an adjective (very really pleasant is awful). But you can stack it up, which is more adverbial-like (super super happy).

One argument for it being a prefix would be that it can modify just adjectives. Adverbs can modify verbs and prepositional phrases (not nouns, as noted above). But it looks like super can actually modify these too: Neal Whitman gives these examples of prepositional phrases:
Three is super off tee, but not off turf.
I was super into rollerblading which I'm not any more.
Other adverbs:
Lift super slowly, taking 10 seconds to raise and 5 to lower.
My job was to 'appear', super suddenly.
And verbs:
Their media strategy... is to kind of exalt and super serve the conservative media.
I super hate to lose.
I super want a desert tortoise!
We super like this song.
The fact that these are less common is slightly an issue, though - perhaps this is a prefix in the process of breaking free and making a bid for adverbialhood? It's times like these I wish I was more of a morphologist and knew how to find out. Advice welcome - anyone want to do a study?

*That's a super-controversial way of putting that. I don't mean to imply any stance on whether the category of a word is part of its inherent content, or whether the same word in more than one category is a single word that changes category rather than being two homophonous words, or anything really. I have opinions about these things but they aren't the point of this post. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Margaret Atwood is perfect

I saw this tweet today and thought it seemed really weird.
If you 'want for' something, then you lack it. It's usually used in the negative, such as We were poor but we wanted for nothing. Note that we wanted for nothing does not mean the same as we wanted nothing! They may very well have wanted lots of things, but didn't need them or feel a lack of them.

Want (without for) also means 'desire', however, because if you lack or need something, you may in fact also desire it, so the meanings overlap. The overlap is especially obvious if you think about a context like buying vegetables at a farmer's market. If you haven't brought your reusable bag (tut tut), the stallholder might say You'll want a bag for those. You don't specially feel a burning desire for one, but you need one, so you do also want one.

If the tweet had said 'If I wanted perfection...' then it would make a bit more sense. As it stands, Atwood seems to be saying 'If I lacked perfection, I would never write a word'. That implies that she writes because she has perfection, which is not at all the sentiment intended.

She may well be perfect, in fact - I think she's right up there in the best writers I've ever read. Top three, for sure. But it's a typo, of course... she actually said 'If I waited for perfection'.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Comments policy

Just to let you know, I've switched on comment moderation. I'm getting spammed by some Italians who are obsessed with someone they're accusing of stuff in capital letters and I'm fed up with deleting the comments. I'll try and be good about approving real comments quickly.