Mechanism of deanimation of zombies by burning: Academic writing and how not to start a paper

Since the earliest known zombie attacks (Max and Roberson 2010), researchers have been aware that penetrating head injury is universally successful in deanimating zombies.

Comment: Zipf, don’t begin a paper by talking about what researchers know.  Nobody gives a shit about researchers.

Since the earliest known zombie attacks (Max and Roberson 2010), it has been known that penetrating head injury is universally successful in deanimating zombies.

Comment: Zipf, there is a time–and there are excellent places–for the passive.  The first sentence of your paper is not it.

Max and Roberson (2010) describe a zombie attack dated to no later than 140,000 years before the Common Era. It is the earliest known outbreak of The Plague–and the first time that hominids are known to have deanimated them via penetrating head injury.

Comment: Zipf, this is a TERRIBLE context in which to use the passive.  You have hominids fighting for their lives against relentless protoanthropophages (unfortunate terminology–so ambiguous…). Keep that alive for the reader–with the active voice.

Max and Roberson (2010) describe a zombie attack dated to no later than 140,000 years before the Common Era. It is the earliest known outbreak of The Plague–and the first time that hominids deanimated them via penetrating head injury.

Comment: Zipf, this is a shitty context for anaphoric reference.  Why did you use it?

Well, it’s frame-licensed, right?  When there is a zombie attack, there are zombies, and what else could be the antecedent of “them” here?

Comment: (1) to your second point: a zombie attack only requires a single zombie, and in fact your text as given provides only the slightest support for the notion that there were more than one. (2) to your first point: “bridging anaphora” is a much more constrained analysis of this than “frame-licensed.” (3) Don’t be ambiguous.  Say “zombies,” not “them.”

What’s a bridging reference

Zipf, what did you find when you looked up “bridging reference” before asking me that question?

By the way: in work-related emails, punctuation is not optional.  These are not text messages, and I am not your friend.

[no response…]

[no reponse…]

[no response…]

Zipf, we need to talk about your continued funding in this graduate program.


Brooks, Max, and Ibraim Roberson. The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks. Broadway Books, 2010.

Note to the reader: do not search Google Images for zombie penetrating head wound unless you have an even stronger stomach than I do.  For context: I brought home the bacon as a medic for many years, and I could not begin to count how many dead bodies I have seen.  Nonetheless: I hit the “back” button on that page as fast as I possibly could.

Picture source:



Things I am grateful for today

Moral injury: distress related to having violated core moral boundaries.

I am grateful for some things today.  I mean, I’m grateful for something every day–my kid has health insurance; I slept in a warm, dry, safe place last night; I had breakfast this morning.  Not everybody can say all three of those things, and a lot of people can’t say any of them.

Today, though, is a little special: instead of feeling grateful for what is, today I’m feeling grateful for what is not.  Three things in particular:

  1. I am not in a war.  A lot of folks are–Kurdish fighters who did most of the fighting against ISIS for us, and who we then abandoned; Ukrainian soldiers defending their country against their historic enemy, and ours since the end of the Second World War, and why the president of the United States of America would hate them so much, I can’t imagine, beyond the two hours that he spent in a room with Vladimir Putin and then wouldn’t even tell his own cabinet members about.
  2. I am not in the bowels of a guided missile cruiser wishing that I hadn’t dropped out of high school–a place that I have certainly been before, unlike the president of the United States, who participated actively in sports throughout college, and then got out of the draft on the grounds that he was not sufficiently physically fit.
  3.  I am not going to kill myself today.  In contrast, about 20 of my fellow US military veterans will do just that today.  Why?  There isn’t just one reason why anyone kills themselves. (See Thomas Joiner’s excellent book Why people die by suicide for details.  He knows what he’s talking about–an eminent suicidologist, and editor of the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.)  And, veterans share the same risk factors as anyone else.  But, there’s a particular contributor to suicidality in veterans that is not often present in the general population.  It’s called “moral injury.”  Here’s a definition of it, from a paper by H.G. Koenig, N.A. Youssef, and M. Pierce:

Moral injury (MI) involves distress over having transgressed or violated core moral boundaries, accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, self-condemnation, loss of trust, loss of meaning, and spiritual struggles.

Koenig, Harold G., Nagy A. Youssef, and Michelle Pearce. “Assessment of moral injury in veterans and active duty military personnel with PTSD: a review.” Frontiers in psychiatry 10 (2019).

What I find especially striking about the concept of moral injury is that it has nothing to do what I suspect most people would think was the big cause of guilt in veterans, which is to say: survivor guilt.  Nope–nothing about surviving going on in moral injury.  It’s not about your buddies getting killed–it’s about who you killed.  Moral injury is not about what you experienced– it’s about what you did.  Sociopaths like to kill–nobody else does.  And our military does a good job of screening out sociopaths.

Here’s the original caption of the picture that you see at the top of this post:

American Special Forces worked closely with Kurdish troops to fight the Islamic State in Manbij, Syria, last year. Credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times. Headline of the article: Pullback Leaves Green Berets Feeling ‘Ashamed,’ and Kurdish Allies Describing ‘Betrayal’

You certainly don’t have to pull the trigger on someone to suffer moral injury, though.  “Pullback leaves Green Berets feeling ‘ashamed’.”  Do you begin to get a sense for why Trump’s level of support in the military is so low?  The guy has done some deeply un-American stuff, but contributing to the rate of veteran suicide–feel free to tell me if you think I’m stretching too far with this, but it’s a new low, even for a guy so deeply in the gutter.

English notes

Things I am grateful for today is the title of this post.  Some observations about it:

  1. It contains what is known as a bare relative clause: “I am grateful for today.”  The “non-bare” version would be Things that I am grateful for today.  I try to use the non-bare versions, on the theory that I imagine them easier for non-native speakers to process, and I spend far more time speaking with non-native speakers than with native speakers.
  2. Another way to say it would be Things for which I am grateful today.  If that’s easy for anybody to process, I’m not aware of the evidence for it.
  3. Yet another possibility: Things which I am grateful for today.  I don’t know of any situation in which that would be preferred.  Which does not, of course, mean that there aren’t any.
  4. Explain to me again how “English is so much less complicated than other languages”???


Why the fuck would you…

So, I’m wandering around backstage in a theater trying to keep my cousins from making me help build props when I come across the following sign on a storage locker:

…and I wonder: why the fuck would you tell someone to spray a paint can?

I slowly digest the bright-red color of the cabinet. I slowly digest the “FLAMMABLE” signs. I slowly digest the fact that I am apparently becoming senile.

A paint can:

Picture source:

A can of spray paint:

The verb “to spray:”

An apparently senile computational linguist [PHOTO OMITTED TO PROTECT PUBLIC SENSIBILITIES]

Nelson Algren’s “The man with the golden arm” and a problem in semantic theory

She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.

He brushed his shot glass off the table and stood up.

When I took the GREs–the Graduate Record Examinationsthe test that you take in the US when you want to go to graduate school–I scored in the top 1 percentile on vocabulary.  I say that not to brag, but to give you some quantitative measure for when I say that in English, I know a lot of words.  That doesn’t mean that I never have to look anything up, though.

Molly could not see him weaving against the table out there in the dark while he was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again.

Eeyore is frustrated. The subtitle, “Le mot n’est pas la chose,” says “The word is not the thing.”

From a linguist’s point of view, the challenge of definition is not to say what a thing is.  (Please, no hate mail–yes, I know that we define words, not things.)  Rather, the challenge of definition is to say what it is not.  I don’t mean this in a Saussurean sense, necessarily, but just from a practical point of view: tell me what a chair is.  OK, I get that you are not talking about a bed.  But, is what you are describing distinguishable from a couch?  How about from a bench?  A loveseat?  A stool?  A loveseat?  A recliner?  A doll-sized chair?  A toilet? The table below gives you an example of the kinds of definitional gymnastics that you find yourself going through in such exercises.  I have adapted this from Sandrine Zufferey and Jacques Moeschler’s Initiation à l’étude du sens : sémantique et pragmatique , the best introductory text on semantics that I’ve seen thus far.  Unfortunately my copy is sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains right now, so I made up the details.  Oh, yeah–and unlike their table, mine’s in English.

chair stool armchair couch loveseat bench
must have back x x x x
armrests x x x
room for two people but no more x
room for more than two people x x
can have as few as three legs x

He felt a sickening sort of shame, this was just the way he wished not to be in finding her again: broke, sick and hunted.  What was it someone had said of her long ago?  “She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.”

So, today I wake up at 4 AM, as I often do.  Normally I start my day with the American news, but the country that I love so much is falling apart so quickly these days that I felt like I needed a few minutes to prepare myself before facing the latest revelations regarding Trump helping Putin with his little Ukrainian problem.  I pulled out the novel that I’ve almost finished–Nelson Algren’s The man with the golden arm.  I laid it down last night at a point where our hero, on the lam from the coppers, has gone looking for his lost love in a bar in an even seedier part of town than his own.  There’s a sort of burlesque show in the bar, and he spots his flower in the chorus line.  He is in big trouble, he’s starting to jones for his next fix (that’s junkie slang: he is going into withdrawal and needs a hit of morphine: broke, sick and hunted), and he is truly at the end of his rope.  A lifesaver: he’s found his girl.  But: as she leaves the stage, he knows full well that he does not want her to see him like this.

Then the act was done and she was gone, they were all gone as if they hadn’t been there at all.  As though the whole act had been a kickback from an overcharge, something he’d formed in his brain out of beer fumes and smoke.

Herbert Terrace’s book on the topic. Spoiler alert: “not as far as I can tell.”

Being a linguist and knowing the primacy of not specification, but rather differentiation, in matters of definition, it bugs the shit out of me that I know lots of words such that I know what category of thing they are, but I could not begin to tell them apart from other things of the same class–by very venerable linguistic theory, this should not happen.  For example: I know that amaryllis, dahlia, and freesia are all flowers, but I could not point any of those three out to you on a bet.  I know that opal, tourmaline, and amethyst are gemstones, but again–hand me three gemstones and ask me if one of them is a tourmaline or not, and I’m just gonna scratch my beard and excuse myself to go to the bathroom.  (Minus the beard-scratching, that last tactic for dealing with social discomfort turns out to be a pretty plausible example of how people end up claiming that they have taught chimpanzees American Sign Language.  A story for another time, perhaps.)

Yet went weaving heavily through smoke and fumes toward the tiny dressing room offstage.

Wearing army brogans on his feet.

OK, so… I already know that brogans are a kind of footwear–it’s not like I’ve never run into the word before.  But, I couldn’t tell you what kind.  The character is a recently-discharged World War II veteran, and his brogans have been mentioned many times in this novel, rom other references over the course of the novel to his heavy-footed walking, I infer that they are…well, heavy.  But, Algren didn’t say a few sentences earlier that his love was “the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on,” and then specify what kind of footwear he’s wearing as he walks into her dressing room after not having seen her for months, by accident.  (Algren was a treasure of the post-war American novel–he doesn’t do shit like that by accident.  A French connection: he was Simone de Beauvoir’s other lover.  Of course she left him for Sartre, who had translated Algren’s novel Never come morning into la langue de Molière.)

So, off I go to the dictionary.  And to Wikipedia.  And to Google Images, too, ’cause it is sometimes a damn fine resource for jury-rigged visual definitions.  (A little topical reference there: jury-rigged, which means something like “improvised with whatever happens to be at hand,” is said to be derived from the wartime slang term to jerry-rig.)  What I find: a brogan is a low-topped boot.  The picture at the top of the page shows a pair of WWII-era US Army brogans.  The gaiters worn above them were made redundant when combat boots became standard issue–they’re higher, so you don’t need the gaiters to “blouse” your trouser legs.  A contemporary reader would have known what he meant; reading the book today, which was written before I was born–a very long time ago–I knew that brogans were footwear, but hadn’t a clue what kind.  So: top 1 percent on the vocabulary portion of the GRE (don’t be too impressed–I was around the 50th percentile on math, maybe even lower), but I had to look a word up.

That’s being a linguist for you… The beauty of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data, and the horror of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data.  As far as definitions go: as my colleague Orin Hargraves, a fine lexicographer, pointed out to me while we were working on our paper Three dimensions of reproducibility in natural language processing, in which we and a cast of thousands of other colleagues proposed a set of definitions for talking about the results of experiments–trying to propose definitions might be somewhat pointless anyways, as in the end word meanings are determined by how they are used within the structure of the language, not by any prescriptive authority.  Did my linguisticness interfere with my enjoyment of Nelson’s finely-wrought prose?  Did it actually make me more aware of its beautiful craftsmanship?  I don’t know.  What I do know: now I’m going to go see what happens when he gets to her dressing room.


Want to know more about the myriad complications of thinking about definitions?  See Elisabetta Ježek’s excellent book The lexicon: An introductionSource of the picture of a pair of brogans at the top of the page: Eastman Leather Clothing Blog,

English notes

He was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again. 

…is weird.  I have never heard the construction understand to [someone].  A quick search on Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, reveals nothing similar (yes, I did a Word Sketch, too):

Screen Shot 2019-10-04 at 05.03.33


I think I’m gettin’ a little punch-drunk here (see the Engish notes below for an explanation of this adjective)…  Finishing up a book (due today), I’m trying to explain the ambiguities of the word conclusion in English.  I’m in the midst of writing the part where I suggest to authors that they use the Discussion and Conclusion(s) section of a scientific paper to wrap things up and to state a conclusion, when I think: wouldn’t it be funny to make up an example like “In conclusion, we conclude that…”  

…and then I think: C’mon, Zipf.  You’re a linguist–you KNOW some motherfucker has published that.  So, I head off to Google Scholar, which lets you search academic publications—crucially, with exact phrases, if you feel so inclined.  And I find:

Screen Shot 2019-09-30 at 08.58.14

Yep–233 results.  Ooooooookay.  Back to the book now…

English notes

To be punch-drunk is to be not thinking super-well due to having been punched in the head too many times.  It’s used figuratively to refer to not thinking super-well because of fatigue.  Right at this moment, I am punch-drunk from trying to get this book finished.  I have not recently been punched in the head.

What you do on Saturday night if you have no life whatsoever

That’s a whole lotta accents…

If you have no life whatsoever, what you do on Saturday night is (a) study French verb conjugations, and (b) binge-watch the excellent Netflix series Criminal: France–and not necessarily in that order, either.

I’ve recently been working on the passé simple, a French tense that’s used in some genres of writing, but only very rarely in the spoken language.  I love les chapeaux chinois (circumflex accents), and one of the nice things about the passé simple is that it uses them.  Specifically, they appear in the nous and vous forms: nouss aimâmes/finîmes/prîmes, vous aimâtes/finîtes/prîtes.

Find a verb with a circumflex accent in the stem, and it gets really fun.  So, it’s Saturday night, and I’m sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette and and doing some exercises on the French Verb Forms iPhone app (no, I am not sponsored by Netflix, French Verb Forms, or Apple–I pay for that stuff just like everyone else), when I am presented with the verb apprêter “to prepare” to conjugate: Circumflex City!

Spotting the wild handler: the clipboard scam

Four women and a guy sat down next to me and lit up.  The women were holding clipboards–SCORE!  

There’s this bizarre scam that you see in any heavily touristy area of Paris.  Young women pretending to be deaf wander around with clipboards and try to get you to sign what is allegedly a petition.  When they get someone to sign, one of two things happen:

  1. In the best-case scenario, they hit you up for a “donation.”
  2. In the worst-case scenario, while you’re distracted, someone picks your pocket.

I have always heard that there is a “handler” hanging around, watching them in case of trouble, but I’ve never been able to spot one–until today.

My task was made ridiculously simple by the fact that the little team gathered for a smoke break–right next to me.  I was at the Place St-Michel, sitting on the edge of the fountain enjoying my own fine American tobacco product, when four women and a guy sat down next to me and lit up.  The women were holding clipboards–score!  

My level of interest in having this guy figure out that I was filming him was low, and consequently, I didn’t get a great video.  What you’re going to see in the following film: the girls have just successfully scored, and their mark has walked away.  The handler wandered over unobtrusively while they were taking her money, and then walked away–at the beginning of the clip, you see him (gray t-shirt, with a courier bag over his shoulder) walking away “stage right.”  Then he takes up a position leaning–not very unobtrusively at all–against a lamp post.

As they smoked their cigarettes, the women chatted amongst themselves–clearly not deaf.  The guy pretty much ignored them, chatting on a cell phone instead.  In which language?  I don’t know.  I was listening for Bulgarian, Rom, or Romanian–but, what I heard sounded more like a dialect of Arabic.  A mystery, since this is stereotypically a scam perpetrated by Roma, and personally, I don’t know of any scam in Paris associated with Arabs.  (There is a whole ecosystem of scams in the world, with different ethnic groups dominating specific sectors of that ecosystem in Paris.)

I have a lot of respect for the guys that you see all over Paris hustling to sell souvenirs, bottles of water, whatever–they’re just trying to make a living like everyone else, exchanging goods for cash.  I have a fair amount of respect for an inventive beggar, too–begging can be much harder and more creative work than you might imagine, and there are some really good ones.  I have zero respect for people who rip other people off, who scam them; I have less than zero respect for people who scam others not by manipulating their greediness (e.g. with a get-rich-quick scheme), but by taking advantage of their kindness.  That, I think, approaches the lowest of the low: fuck them.