Coffee is expensive, isn’t it: Tag questions in English III

The purpose of language is to communicate, right?  Seems obvious.  In fact, it is not so obvious.  One way in which language is not clearly about communication per se is when we use language to do things.  Consider the following, from the introduction to the paper Speech act distinctions in syntaxby Jerry Sadock and Arnold Zwicky.  They refer to “communicative tasks,” which sounds like a counter to my claim here, but I think it’s a bit of a misnomer: they are mixing together things that are mainly communicative (e.g. “express surprise or dismay”) with things for which “task” would be a more appropriate label:

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 15.16.54

Consider, for example, the following:

I now pronounce you man and wife.

It is by saying those words of the (more or less) traditional American wedding ceremony that one performs the action of marrying someone.  Or this:

I promise to try to do better.

Again, it is precisely by saying that sentence that one performs the action of making a performance.  Certainly there’s some communication going on both in I now pronounce you man and wife and I promise to try to do better, but there’s a whole lot more going on than communication, too–in the first case, you are committing two people to sleeping with each other and no one else (presumably until death does them part), while in the second case, you are causing a commitment to exist on your part where no such commitment existed before.


Recently we’ve been talking a lot about tag questions, and tag questions are one of the kinds of “sentence types” that Sadock and Zwicky talk about.  (I think that’s Sadock’s handwriting on the scan of the paper title that you see at the top of this post, by the way.)  They point out a quirk of English tag-questions that we haven’t talked about before: you can say them with different intonation patterns, and the different patterns do pretty different things.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 15.32.25

Native speakers of English have a tendency to respond to a tag question according to the response that the question is intended to evoke.  Children are quite likely to do this, and lawyers use tag questions in the court room to try to get witnesses to answer as the lawyer would like them to.  See this post for more on that topic.

Sadock and Zwicky talk about typical tag questions in English as an example of what they call a biased question: a question that is meant to evoke a specific answer.  (That in itself is pretty different from what we think about questions as doing: obtaining some information that we don’t know.)  They differentiate confirmatives from biased questions; they describe confirmatives like this:

Rather than having as their goal the garnering of information, these really amount to statements that carry with them the demand that the addressee express his agreement or disagreement.

Back to their “coffee” examples:

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 15.40.11

See these posts for the following:

3rd person singular tag questions with the verb is

3rd person plural tag questions with the verb are

So, yeah: the tag question construction seems simple, but it’s actually pretty complex, in a lot of ways.  In fact, English tag questions can be quite difficult for non-native speakers to learn to use, and that’s why we’ve been drilling them recently.


We’ve been working on tag questions with the verb to be recently.  We worked on the third person singular (Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?) and the third person plural (Trump and his cronies ARE the swamp, aren’t they?).  We did that in the present tense–let’s try the past tense now, ’cause the verb in the tag has to agree with the verb in the base sentence with respect to tense.  (Still think that tag questions are simple?)

We’ll follow our usual structure for drills–half a dozen on the same model, half a dozen on a similar model, and then mix ’em up.  Remember: we’re not testing ourselves–we’re practicing.  This is fun!  (…and this is why I never get a second date.)

Model:

  • Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war.
  • Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war, wasn’t he?
  1. Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war.
  2. Trump was remarkably silent about Roy Moore for quite a while.
  3. Obama was fucking wonderful for the economy.
  4. Trump was given a draft deferment for bone spurs in his feet.  Now he says he’s the healthiest president ever.  Fucking coward.
  5. Trump was more pissed about being criticized for his defense of the bigots in Charlottesville than he was about the poor girl that was murdered by a white supremacist.

…and now the opposite polarity:

  1. Trump wasn’t actually a very successful businessman.
  2. Trump wasn’t above refusing to pay small businessmen who had done work for him.
  3. Trump wasn’t embarrassed to declare bankruptcy.
  4. Trump wasn’t honest with the students in his real estate “school.”
  5. Trump wasn’t eager for war when he was still young enough to be drafted.

As President Obama said, over and over and over: Merry Christmas.

Just stick as many Ys in there as you can

“Just stick as many Ys in there as you can,” said my mentor–and if the question is how do you spell “homonymy,” then that’s the right answer.

A cherished mentor had this word of advice for me on how to spell words like homonymy and metonymy: 

Just stick as many Ys in there as you can.

I thought about him today as I put together this post about words that I confuse (or that confuse me–I’m never clear on what the underlying semantics of confuse are).  As you can see from my flash cards, I’m working on words that sound the same, but that are written differently.  What do you call those? homo = the same, and graph = writing, so these are homographs.  

Now, two (or more) words can be written the same, but sound different: lead the metal (pronounced like laide in French) and lead the verb (pronounced like lied in English), for instance.  Homo = the same, phone = sound, so these are homophones.

Now, we’ve been making an assumption about homophones (words that sound the same) and homographs (words that are written the same): we’ve been making the assumption that they mean different things.  How about words that sound the same and are written the same–so, they are homophones and homographs–but, they mean different things?  These are homonyms.  Some examples of homonyms in English:

  • duck (a kind of bird) and duck (to move one’s body downward without sitting or lying down)
  • sentence (a group of phrases) and sentence (a punishment) and sentence (to assign a punishment to someone)
  • lead (to direct) and lead (the primary role in a movie, play, or television series)

Where do the Ys come in?  In spelling words like homonymy (the phenomenon of the existence of homonyms) and metonymy (referring to something by something that is associated with it, e.g. referring to the president’s administration as The White House).  Just stick as many Ys in there as you can, said my mentor–and if the question is how do you spell… then that’s the right answer.


I learn about 10 new words a day, except during the month of December, when I review everything that I learned in the previous year.  My French review chore of the day is to get straightened out on a few similar words.  Zipf’s Law being a fact of life–most words almost never occur, and yet they do occur, I actually ran into all of these in 2017.  They’re mostly words that sound the same, but are written differently–so, homographs, homophones, or homonyms?  I threw in some that just sound and look similar–paisible, passable, and passible–but, all of the rest are homophones.  Enjoy!img_4835img_4834img_4836img_4837

Check your gender at the door

The phenomena are the same whether you’re talking about the two genders of French or the 20 genders of Shona: some things have to agree with nouns.  Does it really matter what we call them?  No, not really.

This is the kind of thing that linguists mean when they say that gender in languages with noun gender is arbitrary: malheur is masculine, peur is feminine; why?  No reason–it’s just one of those things that you have to memorize.  When a language has two genders, people will try endlessly to convince you that the specific noun genders in that language are as they should be (of course a tugboat (remorqueur) is masculine and booze (liqueur) is feminine, they might say); when a language has three genders (Bulgarian, German, Tamil) they don’t argue quite so loudly; get above 15 (Swahili: 18, Shona: 20), and you have trouble convincing those same people that they’re gender systems.  And yet: the phenomena are the same whether you’re talking about the two genders of French or the 20 genders of Shona: some things have to agree with nouns.  What classes do those nouns fall into?  Does it really matter what we call them?  No, not really.


The task of the day: memorize the gender of nouns ending with -eur.  Now, I know what the native speakers are going to tell me: It’s easy, Zipf.  If it’s a person, it’s masculine, and there’s a corresponding feminine form, which might end in -euse (chanteuse) or might not (doctoresse).  If it’s an abstract quality—peur, douleur, fureur-–then it’s feminine, except when it’s not, like bonheur and malheur.  Oh, and remorqueur is a tugboat, not a person, but it’s still masculine, plus fleur and sueur are not abstract qualities, but they’re feminine.  Yep: it’s arbitrary–you just have to memorize it.

I think you can figure out how these drills work.  Oh–native speakers might disagree about some of these, especially the two plurals couleurs, one for the flag and one for the darks in your laundry.  Native speakers, please feel free to chime in in the Comments section…

img_4393img_4395img_4397img_4394img_4396img_4398img_4400

 

Trump is an asshole, isn’t he? Tag questions in English II

It’s frustrating when something LOOKS really easy, but you just can’t get it right, isn’t it?

It’s frustrating when something looks really easy, but you just can’t get it right, isn’t it?  I hate it when I screw up the simplest things in French–don’t you?

The preceding questions are examples of “tag questions.”  A tag question is made up of two parts:

  1. An assertion (think of it as a sentence)
  2. Something added to the end of it to turn it into a question (I think always expecting a yes or a no answer, but I can’t swear to it). Tag questions invite a specific response: either a yes, or a no.

For example:

Assertion Tag Invited response
Trump is an asshole isn’t he Yes
Trump est vraiment un gros connard hein Oui
Kawaii ne Ee

Tag questions have many functions in anglophone social contexts.  Female speakers of English are often said to use tag questions to avoid making overly confident statements and to reduce the force of what they have to say. From a blog post by Mark Liberman:

In her influential (1975) work Language and Women’s Place, Robin Lakoff depicted a typical female speech style, allegedly characterized by the use of features such as hesitations, qualifiers, tag questions, empty adjectives, and other properties, which she asserted to have a common function: to weaken or mitigate the force of an utterance. Thus tag questions “are associated with a desire for confirmation or approval which signals a lack of self-confidence in the speaker.”  —Language Log

However: tag questions can also be powerful tools.  As Roger Shuy puts it in his book Linguistics in the courtroom: A practical guide,

Be alert for questions ending with tags such as, “didn’t you” or “wasn’t it.”  Discourse analysts know that tag questions intend to influence the answer in the way it was stated before the tag.  Lawyers know that it’s very hard to disagree with the premise of a tag question.  Among other things, the listener first has to temporarily suspend belief in the cooperative principle of conversation (Grice 1977).  Linguistic experts should have no problem with this, right?  But it’s one thing to know this academically and quite another to have it happen to you in a deposition, where your mind is racing about many other things.  –-Roger Shuy


Tag questions are one of those things that look simple.  In fact, they can be pretty complicated, and that is the case in every language in which I know anything at all about tag questions.  That’s not a million, but it’s more than a couple.  For example, in Bulgarian, the particle li is used to form yes-no questions:

  • Obichash me (you love me)
  • Obichash li me (do you love me?)

There are two tags (that I know of): nali, which invites a response of da (yes), and dali, which invites a response of ne (no).

Let’s think through those two tags.  You already know that li means a yes-no question.  In Bulgarian, da means yes, while ne means no.  But, if you’re expecting a yes-no question to be answered yes, you put nali at the end of it, while if you’re expecting a yes-no question to be answered no, you put dali at the end of it.  Ne me obichash, dali?  (You don’t love me, do you?)  This confuses the hell out of non-native speakers.


For all that they appear simple, English-language tag questions often confuse non-native speakers.  In order to construct them, you have to get a lot of things right–the person and gender of the pronoun, the polarity of the tag, the verb in the tag, and the tense, at a minimum.  In a recent post, we did some drills on tag questions of this form:

Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?

Trump isn’t honest, is he?

To get those right, you had to:

  1. Get the pronoun right (he)
  2. Get the “polarity” right (isn’t he versus is he)
  3. Get the tense right (is/isn’t, not was/wasn’t)
  4. The verb in the tag (is, not do, etc.)

Today let’s start with that basic frame, but add in plural subjects.  We’ll keep the verb to be and the present tense, but with plural subjects, we’ll need the plural forms of the irregular verb to be:

  1. Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?
  2. Trump and Kushner are assholes, aren’t they?

As before, we’ll do half a dozen each of the positive and negative polarity forms (i.e. are + aren’t they and aren’t + are), and then mix them up a bit.  Scroll down past the picture for the answers.  Remember: we’re drilling, not testing ourselves, so no anxiety–just joy in the bizarreness of all languages.

  1. Trump and Kushner are assholes.
  2. Trump and Bannon are nihilists.
  3. Trump and Kim Jong Un are two of a kind.
  4. Trump and nuclear weapons are like booze and driving.
  5. Trump and his administration are a disaster for this country.
  6. Trump and his cronies are pulling off the biggest heist by any American president, ever.
1pp409
Picture source: https://imgflip.com/i/1pp409
  • Trump and Kushner are assholes, aren’t they?
  • Trump and Bannon are nihilists, aren’t they?
  • Trump and Kim Jong Un are two of a kind, aren’t they?
  • Trump and nuclear weapons are like booze and driving, aren’t they?
  • Trump and his administration are a disaster for this country, aren’t they?
  • Trump and his cronies are pulling off the biggest heist by any American president, ever–aren’t they?

Now let’s switch the “polarity”–that is, let’s change from are + aren’t to aren’t + are.

  1. Trump and honesty are not close friends.
  2. Trump and nuclear weapons aren’t a very smart combination.
  3. Trump and his kids are not going to be in the line of fire if we go to war.
  4. Trump and his cronies are not as good at making deals as they are at breaking them.
  5. Trump and Roy Moore are not doing much to hide the essential hypocrisy of the Republican Party.
  6. Trump and his Republican allies are not as interested in the people who elected them as they are in the people who shipped the factories in which those people used to work off to China.
spw7nqceuhoy
Picture source: https://www.reddit.com/r/MarchAgainstTrump/comments/62cetd/trump_the_draft_dodger/
  1. Trump and honesty are not close friends, are they?
  2. Trump and nuclear weapons aren’t a very smart combination, are they?
  3. Trump and his kids are not going to be in the line of fire if we go to war, are they?
  4. Trump and his cronies are not as good at making deals as they are at breaking them, are they?
  5. Trump and Roy Moore are not doing much to hide the essential hypocrisy of the Republican Party, are they?
  6. Trump and his Republican allies are not as interested in the people who elected them as they are in the people who shipped the factories in which those people used to work off to China, are they?

…and finally, we’ll mix them up a bit.  Remember–we’re drilling, not testing!  No anxiety–just joy!

  1. Trump and Kushner are assholes.
  2. Trump and Bannon are nihilists.
  3. Trump and honesty are not close friends.
  4. Trump and his administration are a disaster for this country.
  5. Trump and nuclear weapons aren’t a very smart combination.
  6. Trump and nuclear weapons are like booze and driving.
  7. Trump and his kids are not going to be in the line of fire if we go to war.
  8. Trump and his cronies are not as good at making deals as they are at breaking them.
  9. Trump and Roy Moore are not doing much to hide the essential hypocrisy of the Republican Party.
  10. Trump and Kim Jong Un are two of a kind.
  11. Trump and his Republican allies are not as interested in the people who elected them as they are in the people who shipped the factories in which those people used to work off to China.
  12. Trump and his cronies are pulling off the biggest heist by any American president, ever.
veterans-against-trump
Picture source: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/05/23/trump-veterans-fundraiser-protest/
  1. Trump and Kushner are assholes, aren’t they?
  2. Trump and Bannon are nihilists, aren’t they?
  3. Trump and honesty are not close friends, are they?
  4. Trump and his administration are a disaster for this country, aren’t they?
  5. Trump and nuclear weapons aren’t a very smart combination, are they?
  6. Trump and nuclear weapons are like booze and driving, aren’t they?
  7. Trump and his kids are not going to be in the line of fire if we go to war, are they?
  8. Trump and his cronies are not as good at making deals as they are at breaking them, are they?
  9. Trump and Roy Moore are not doing much to hide the essential hypocrisy of the Republican Party, are they?
  10. Trump and Kim Jong Un are two of a kind, aren’t they?
  11. Trump and his Republican allies are not as interested in the people who elected them as they are in the people who shipped the factories in which those people used to work off to China, are they?
  12. Trump and his cronies are pulling off the biggest heist by any American president, ever, aren’t they?

 

Tag, you’re it: Tag questions in English I

American (soon-to-be-dumped) guy: This ice cream is good, isn’t it? His Japanese girlfriend: Stop talking like a girl, it’s weird!

It’s frustrating when something looks really easy, but you just can’t get it right, isn’t itI hate it when I screw up the simplest things in French–don’t you?  I mean, the conditional mood can’t be that hard, can it?  And I studied the shit out of it before I took the C1 test, didn’t II studied it over and over, did I not?  And all of those web pages that I read–they explained the conditional pretty well, didn’t they?  And my brother and I are super-into this kind of shit, aren’t weI didn’t neglect to study, did II’m going to sulk about this for weeks, aren’t I…  I won’t give up complaining about this until I take the C2 and have something new to grouse about, will I

Tag questions are one of those little things in English that look like they oughta be super-simple—but, in fact, they’re not.  Actually, tag questions have complications in all of the languages in which I know anything about tag questions.  (That’s not a ton of languages, but it’s more than a couple.)  Japanese is a good example of a language in which tag-questions can be a problem for non-native speakers.  There is a very easy way to ask a tag-question in Japanese: add ne to the end of a sentence.  But, in Japanese (more accurately, in Japanese culture–when you figure out how to draw a precise line between language and culture, please notify us linguists), tag-questions get asked more frequently this way by women than by men, so Americans tend to learn them the way that they tend to be asked by women.  But, if you’re a guy, you sound funny when you ask them, ’cause you’re speaking like a girl.  Stereotypical conversation between an American guy and his Japanese girlfriend who has grown weary of him:

  • American (soon-to-be-dumped) guy: This ice cream is good, ne (isn’t it)?
  • His Japanese (soon-to-be-ex-) girlfriend: Stop talking like a girl, it’s weird!

I should point out that one of the most useful things for any American to learn to say in Japanese is a tag question.  Kawaii, ne? means something like he/she/it is cute, isn’t he/she/it?  You can use it to compliment babies and dogs, and it’s a great smile-eliciting ice-breaker.

We’ll use the same approach that we used the other day to work on son versus leur: drill something half a dozen times or so, drill something else half a dozen times or so, then mix them up.  We’ll do tag questions that vary with respect to polarity: are we using a tag to ask something about something that is negated (Trump is not handling the stress well, is he?), or not negated (Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?) . Remember that we’re not testing ourselves here–we’re practicing.  So, no stress–rather, joy, like if you had a free evening to go to judo class, or to work on a blog post that’s been giving you fits.

For starters: a “positive polarity” sentence.  That means a sentence that makes a positive assertion, i.e. one that does not involve negation.  In order to have to vary as little as possible in the beginning, we’ll stick with he.  (Third person masculine singular, for those of you who like noun phrases.)  We’ll also stick with the verb to be.  Here’s the model that we’ll be following:

Prompt: Trump is an asshole.

Response: Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?

The answers follow the lovely illustration.

  1. Trump is an assclown.  (Assclown is a type of asshole.  You could think of an assclown as an asshole who soaks up attention without realizing the extent to which he’s getting a lot of attention precisely because he’s an asshole.)
  2. George Papadopoulous is dead meat.  (To be dead meat means to be in a lot of trouble.)
  3. Steve Bannon is a malignant fucker.
  4. Jared Kushner is an embarrassment.
  5. Melania Trump is a plagiarist. (trick question, sorry–Melania is not a he.)
  6. Paul Manafort is under indictment.

Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 07.50.35

  • Trump is an assclown, isn’t he?
  • George Papadopoulous is dead meat, isn’t he?
  • Steve Bannon is a malignant fucker, isn’t he?
  • Jared Kushner is an embarrassment, isn’t he?
  • Melania Trump is a plagiarist, isn’t… whoops!
  • Paul Manafort is under indictment, isn’t he?

So far so good?  Let’s switch “polarity” now: we’ll start with a negated sentence.

  • Trump isn’t very happy.
  • Milos isn’t a contributor at Breitbart anymore.
  • Trump isn’t a very good example for the children of America.
  • Kellyanne Conway isn’t very honest. (shit–did it again!)
  • John Kelly is not helping things much.
  • Trump isn’t actually as rich as he says he is.

Again, the answers follow the lovely illustration.

Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 07.59.43

  1. Trump isn’t very happy, is he?
  2. Milos isn’t a contributor at Breitbart anymore, is he?
  3. Trump isn’t a very good example for the children of America, is he?
  4. Kellyanne Conway isn’t very honest, is she?  (shit–did it again!)
  5. John Kelly is not helping things much, is he?
  6. Trump isn’t actually as rich as he says he is, is he?

Hanging in there?  Great–let’s mix it up a bit.  Remember: we’re not testing, we’re practicing.  We’re drilling.  Joy, not anxiety.

  1. Trump is screwing exactly the people who elected him.
  2. Trump isn’t very loyal.
  3. Trump is a fucking liar.
  4. Trump is a draft-dodger.
  5. Trump isn’t a military veteran.
  6. Trump isn’t honest.

Answers after the lovely illustration, as usual:

Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 08.09.29
Probably a pretty good window into what the francophone world (at least that portion of it that is located in France) thinks about this disaster of a human being…

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