Ambiguity II: Trump, cognitive issues, and no heart

Out of the 256 possible interpretations of this headline, only TWO seem to be the most obvious ones. Why?

We’ve recently been talking about ambiguity.  Ambiguity, from a linguist’s perspective, is the situation of having more than a single possible meaning, and as we’ve seen, there are MANY ways to be ambiguous.

Here’s a nice example.  It comes from the renowned linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker.  Like many linguists, he collects ambiguous headlines.  They are not at all difficult to find, but some are cooler than others.  Here’s his current favorite:

26994155_10215860788379380_4969277272959803763_n

What can one say about this? From a linguistic perspective, what are the possible interpretations?

  • There is some doctor who does or does not have things going on with respect to his or her heart–we’ll get into what those things could be momentarily.
  • There is some doctor who said something about someone who does or does not have things going on with respect to his or her heart.

Now, the second interpretation is the intended one, so let’s go with it for the rest of the discussion.  (We’ll talk later about what happens if we don’t.)  What’s the issue with the rest?

  • One interpretation is that the comma indicates what’s called a kind of coordination or conjunction: it corresponds to or, and the intended meaning is that the person who’s being talked about does not have heart or cognitive issues.  (That’s not the full story here–more below.)
  • Another interpretation is that the comma indicates a new clause.  In this case, it would correspond to the doctor saying that the person under discussion does not have a heart, and also has cognitive issues.

How many possible meanings so far?  We’ve listed four, but it’s a big underestimate.

Why does Pinker like this one so much?  Because that last interpretation says this: Trump has no heart, and he also has cognitive issues.  That jives pretty well with what I would say, personally, and apparently Pinker, too–so, yeah, I would love to see that in a newspaper (assuming that his cognitive issues didn’t lead to him nuking somebody in a petulant frenzy before he could be (legally) put out of office.


Now: we’re not done yet.  Here are some remaining issues:

  • What is the scope of issues?  Are we talking about heart issues and/or cognitive issues, or are we talking about cognitive issues, and some unspecified thing about the heart?
  • What is the scope of no?  Are we talking about no heart and no cognitive issues, or are we asserting something about cognitive issues, plus something about there being no heart involved in some way?
  • What does heart mean?  Are we talking about an anatomical organ, or are we talking metaphorically, where heart can mean something like inherent kindness?  Or maybe we’re talking metaphorically, but where the metaphorical meaning of heart is something like courage?  (See this video for the meaning of “heart,” “heart checks,” and “showing heart” in prison.) Does it mean a seasonal check on the core of timber?  (Seriously–check it out on DictionaryOfConstruction.com.)
  • What does issue mean?  We actually had a blog post that was primarily on that question, in the context of analyzing Henry Reed’s poem Returning of Issue.

So: how many interpretations of that headline are there?  A low estimate would be two for each of the questions that we thought about above, so each one of those points doubles the number of possible interpretations.  That’s 2 to the 8th power: 256 possible interpretations.  You found another point of ambiguity?  You just doubled the number of interpretations again, to 512.  (Go ahead–find another one, and tell us about it in the Comments section.)


Here’s a question for you: of the 256 possible interpretations, just two of them seem to be the most obvious ones:

  1. The one where the doctor is talking about someone else, where issues modifies (technically, “has scope over”) both heart and cognitive, the meaning of heart is the anatomical organ, and no modifies both of heart issues and cognitive issues.
  2. The one where Trump is unkind and has cognitive issues.

Why?


…and here’s an observation for you: my profession is about getting computers to differentiate between the possible interpretations in biomedical journal articles and in health records, finding the one intended interpretation out of all of the possible ones.  I don’t expect to have it solved any time soon.  🙂

How linguists think: Tag questions in English IV

Linguistics is similar to organic chemistry in some respects: how things combine tells you something about what those things are. 

Tag questions are those simple little things that you use to get someone to give you a yes-or-no answer:

  • Trump sure needs a lot of little golf mini-vacays, doesn’t he?
  • Trump screwed the pooch on health care, didn’t he?
  • Trump lies a lot, doesn’t he?

Actually, they’re not so simple, those little questions…. They have an odd quirk that will give you a little bit of insight into how linguists think through things.


I often explain linguistics to people as being similar to organic chemistry in some respects: on one level, it’s about figuring out what the parts of language are, and how they go together.  As is the case in organic chemistry, how the parts go together–or don’t–tells you something about what those parts are.  An example: the distinction between auxiliary verbs and other verbs.

prague-couvent-strahov-14
The main library at the Strahov monastery in Prague. Enlarge the picture and look closely at the upper-left corner–that’s Les Encyclopédistes being cast into hell. Source: https://www.avantgarde-prague.fr/

In general, scientists tend to start with the assumption that everything is the same until proven otherwise.  Proving it to be otherwise is not always as simple as you might think–consider the fuzzy separation between things as basic as matter and energy in the physical universe.  For the Encyclopédistes, separating the realm of the Divine from the realm of everything else was a major nouveauté–and one that they were condemned for.  (This summer I saw a monastery library in Prague that had a gorgeous painted ceiling; the fresco included a scene of the Encyclopédistes being cast into Hell.  This is why.)

Back to tag questions… In English, the verbs in tag questions exhibit an odd behavior.  There are some verbs that can be in the “sentence” to which the tag is added, as well as in the tag.  For example:

  • Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?
  • Trump could get impeached, couldn’t he?
  • Trump did reveal intelligence to the Russian ambassador, didn’t he?

But, most verbs can’t show up in the tag.  Instead, they are replaced by did.  For example:

  • Trump screwed the people who elected him with that tax bill, didn’t he?
  • Trump went kinda apeshit over the whole inauguration crowd thing, didn’t he?  Insecure loser…
  • Trump lied about Obama’s birth certificate, didn’t he?

To a linguist, the fact that English verbs cluster into two groups–ones that can appear in the tag of a tag question, and ones that can’t–suggests that there are two distinct kinds of verbs in the language.  This is one piece of evidence that you could use if you wanted to argue (and linguists do love to argue about language) that there is such a thing as a distinction between auxiliary verbs and other kinds of verbs.  It’s just like organic chemistry–knowing how the parts go together tells you something about what they are.


See these previous posts on forming tag questions:

3rd person singular tag questions with the verb is

3rd person plural tag questions with the verb are

3rd person singular past tense tag questions with was

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.

Scroll down past the picture for the answers.

ckvzcty

  • Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war, wasn’t he?
  • Trump was remarkably silent about Roy Moore for quite a while, wasn’t he?
  • Obama was fucking wonderful for the economy, wasn’t he?
  • Trump was given a draft deferment for bone spurs in his feet, wasn’t he?  Now he says he’s the healthiest president ever.  Fucking coward.
  • 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, wasn’t he?

…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.

…and scroll down past the picture for the answers once again!

mccain-trump

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

French notes

la fresque: fresco.

English notes

vacay: slang for “vacation.”  How it was used in the post: Trump sure needs a lot of little golf mini-vacays, doesn’t he?

to screw the pooch: “Pooch” is a slang term for “dog.”  I would call it archaic, personally–but, I think I might be wrong about that.  To wit: if you compare its frequency to the frequency of the word dog, it’s clearly quite rare–here’s a graph of their frequencies in English-language books over the course of the 200 years from 1800 to 2000:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=pooch%2Cdog&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpooch%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cdog%3B%2Cc0

…but, if you look just at the frequency of pooch alone, you see that it climbs quite a bit in the mid-1980s. Why? I have no clue.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=pooch&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpooch%3B%2Cc0

Now, to screw the pooch: Wiktionary defines it as to screw up; to fail in dramatic and ignominious fashion.  That’s bad.  Ooooooh, this is interesting–I just looked for screw the pooch (and its past tense and present participial forms) on Google Ngrams, and look what I found–its frequency jumps around the same time that we saw a jump in pooch: 

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=screw+the+pooch%2Cscrewed+the+pooch%2Cscrewing+the+pooch&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cscrew%20the%20pooch%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cscrewed%20the%20pooch%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cscrewing%20the%20pooch%3B%2Cc0

Could the mid-1980s resurgence of pooch that we saw in the second graph be due to a growth in the use of screw the pooch?  Possibly so.  Wiktionary says that the expression to screw the pooch became popular due to its appearance in Tom Wolfe’s book The right stuff in 1979 and its film adaptation in 1983–these graphs certainly support that timing!

 

How to be interesting (the science version)

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be interesting.  Which is to say: my professional life mostly consists of writing things; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing papers or grant proposals; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing papers such that objective third parties will recommend that they be published, or grant proposals such that objective third parties will recommend that they be funded; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing things in such a way that objective third parties won’t be pissed off about the fact that they’re being asked to read them, ’cause if they’re pissed while they’re reading, they’re unlikely to recommend either publishing (in the case of articles) or funding (in the case of grant proposals).  I know (from long experience reading other people’s papers and grant reviews) that a good way to piss someone off about the fact that they’ve been asked to read your stuff is to not be interesting; so: I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be interesting.

What’s interesting is, I imagine, dependent on context; my context (in my professional life, at any rate) is an academic one.  In an academic context, I can think of two ways to be interesting:

  • Show that something that looks really complicated is actually quite simple.
  • Show that something that looks really simple is actually quite complicated.

Some examples of being interesting by showing that something that looks really complicated is actually quite simple:

  • Darwin showing that the amazing, astounding, overwhelming diversity of life is explainable by one principle.
  • Chomsky claiming that the incredible diversity of human languages is all based on a small set of shared principles.  (I’m leaving out a bunch of details here.  Hell, I’m leaving out a bunch of details everywhere in this post–I’m just painfully aware of them in this case, ’cause I’m a linguist.)
  • The ideal gas law, which describes the relationship between the pressure and the volume and the temperature and the number of molecules in a sample of a gas with one beautiful little equation.  (We were very amused by the equation in the Navy.  Written PV = NRT, you could imagine pronouncing it “pervnert,” which sounds a lot like pervert, which we thought was super-funny.

Some examples of being interesting by showing that something that looks really simple is actually quite complicated:

  • Newton showing that the single most obvious fact about the world–if you haven’t watched a baby figuring out that it exists, you’ve really missed something (and you could fix that–go adopt someone, the need is enormous)–is, in fact, what holds the entire fucking physical universe together.
  • Gender–it’s supposed to be super-simple (only two, and you can tell which one you are by standing in the mirror).  Turns out it’s much more complicated than that, and if you think that it all boils down to chromosomes: it’s more complicated than that.  (The link takes you to a World Health Organization page that talks about some of the possibilities beyond XY sex chromosomes–there are complexities in each of the seven ways that gender gets taxonomized in the biomedical literature alone.)

I had a hell of a lot less trouble coming up with examples of being interesting by showing that something apparently complicated is actually quite simple than I did coming up with examples of being interesting by showing that something apparently simple is actually quite complicated.  Does that mean that one is better than the other?  Does that mean that I have a biased sample of interesting things?  Does that mean that I have a warped sense of what is interesting?  Does that mean that I need to get more sleep (I was singing Il est 5 heures, Paris s’éveille (which, now that I think about it, is relevant to the how-many-genders question) at 5 AM, ’cause I had been awake since midnight)?  I really don’t know.  Someone have examples to add?  I’ll just step out on the balcony for a cigarette while you do that…


English notes

to step out on: A nice ambiguity!  To step out on someone has a very specific meaning, and it’s not what I meant here–so, why not take this opportunity to go over an odd little corner of the English language?

To step out typically means to–either literally or metaphorically–exit something by walking a very short distance.  It can be followed by lots of things, particularly prepositions:

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 05.57.06
I found these examples by using the Sketch Engine web site.  It provides access to hundreds of corpora (collections of texts with some data added, e.g. parts of speech of every word) in I-don’t-know-how-many languages, along with a single search facility that you can use for any and all of them.  I used it to search a corpus called enTenTen, which consists of 19.7 billion words of English-language text scraped from the Internet.  No, they don’t pay me for this–I pay them.  More accurately, my boss pays them–I use Sketch Engine for my day job, researching biomedical language.
  • You can step out on something, which you could paraphrase as to step out onto something, and it just means that you exited something by walking a very short distance, and then you were located on something:
  • Now Google is stepping out on that dance floor every day.
  • It’s like stepping out on the highwire in the big tent without the net.
  • Stepping out on the patio after getting into our robes, we felt the heat of the 80 degree sun – aah!
  • We have come to rescue you! yelled the young inventor, as he stepped out on the deck, with his electric rifle in his hand.
  • I was in complete shock after inching my drivers side door open with all of my might, and stepping out on to the pavement…
  • They paint an irresistible picture of Al in his bathrobe rolling over and over on the floor with his young son at his Miami villa or stepping out on the porch in his carpet slippers to smash bottles floating in the ocean with a machine-gun named Queenie.

However: to step out on (a person) means to cheat on them, to be unfaithful to them.  More vulgarly: to “fuck around on” them.  (Ooooh–two prepositions in a row!)  Some examples:

  • Poor Anna got caught stepping out on her old man – again.
  • Some of the boys heard rumours that she was stepping out on me.
  • Mom was never really all that happy, I think after he stepped out on her she had a fling, or tried.
  • Frank didn’t have the taste for that sort of work–chasing down bail jumpers or tracking husbands stepping out on their wives.
  • And it looks like Emma Frost will be stepping out on Cyclops with the King of Atlantis, which really doesn’t surprise me at all.
  • Yep, what if folks knew up front that he was stepping out on his wife; wouldn’t that pretty much kill the whole idea of being vulnerable to blackmail, etc.? 

Enjoy!

 

Ethereal fluid

Just for fun: work the word “ichor” into a conversation.

Zipf’s Law: most words occur very rarely–but, they do occur. Case in point: ichor. I went 55 years of my life without ever running into it before that I can recall–and then last year, I came across it twice. (Yes, I remember shit like how many times I came across the word ichor last year–probably why I get divorced so often.)

Is it really possible to use the word ichor in a conversation? As the kids say: hells, yes! For example: I have a bit of a cold, so I spent the morning wiping ichor off of my nose. (Seriously–I feel like shit.) I’m in Hawaii at the moment, so I’m eating a lot of poke–a traditional Hawaiian dish made of raw tuna, which depending on how it’s been marinated, may or may not have a coating of ichor on it. Fastoche–working “ichor” into your quotidian conversations is easy-peasy.


Questions for discussion while you wonder whether or not I’m kidding about wiping ichor off my nose all morning:

  • What does it mean for a word to be in a language?  When I say that ichor is an English word: is it possible, in theory, to demonstrate whether or not that statement is true?
  • Is there some authority that determines what is or is not a word in the English language?  If so: who died and made them king?  (That’s something that kids say when someone who they don’t think has any right to tell them what to do tells them what to do: who died and made you king?)
  • Is being–or not–part of a language purely a question of use?  If so: does frequency matter?  How often does something have to be used to count as part of the language, versus, say, some word that I just made up off the top of my head, or some Yiddish word that I used because I happened to know that my interlocutor would understand it, even though we were speaking English at the time?
  • If it’s purely a question of use: does it matter who uses it?  Like, if a word is only used by adolescent pot-smokers, but it’s used by a lot of adolescent pot smokers–would that do it?  How about if a word is used by exactly the same number of people, but they’re all university professors with doctorates in something cool and tweed jackets?  And what if no one in the entire fucking world except university professors with doctorates in something cool and tweed jackets knows what the hell it means–does that change your judgement?  How about if it’s only one person, but he’s the president of the most powerful country in the world (for the moment, i.e. until he fucks it up)?  Covfefe, anyone?  What if the president uses it, but only one time, and he’s a fucking ignoramus, but then the whole country picks it up, even though it was just a typo, because the president of the most powerful country in the world (for the moment, i.e. until he fucks it up) is too sloppy to be bothered to check his tweets before he hits the Send button?

…or, we could all just step outside for a cigarette and a bit of fresh air.  We are, after all, in Hawaii, and the question of what it means for a language to have something–or not–is really hard to answer.  Tell us about your uses of “ichor” today in the Comments section!

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

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?