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.

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:

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.)


  • 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.


  • 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!


  • 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:

…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.

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:

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!


Ambiguity I

Is natural language processing a way of processing language–a natural way–or is it the processing of a kind of language–natural language?  I love having an ambiguous profession.

Ambiguity is the condition of having more than one meaning:

Il y a ambiguïté lorsqu’à une forme unique correspondent plusieurs significations.

Notice that Fuchs uses the word forme: ambiguity is not limited to the meanings of words.  A form could just as well be a phrase (something smaller than a sentence), or a sentence.

Two things to know about ambiguity:

  1. It is a feature of every human language.
  2. Almost everything that you say, hear, read, or write today will be ambiguous in some way.

Ambiguity is absolutely pervasive and ubiquitous in language.  The thing is, humans are excellent at “recovering” the intended meaning–so good at it then we only recognize ambiguity a minuscule fraction of the times that we come across it.  The other thing is: a computer program that does things with language cannot ignore it.  In fact, you could think of my job as being getting computers to resolve ambiguity–to choose which of multiple possible interpretations is the intended one.

Humor often works by manipulating ambiguities.  It does this by forcing you to find the interpretation–the meaning–that you wouldn’t have expected.  I’ll give you an example:

Original source unknown

This is an example of a structural ambiguity.  The two possible meanings correspond to two different syntactic structures.  In the one where it’s Sherlock who’s using the binoculars, using binoculars is “attached to” the verb saw.  In the one where it’s the man who’s using the binoculars, using binoculars is “attached to” the man.  Here are the two syntactic structures, from the blog Walk in the Words:

When I teach natural language processing (see the ambiguity there?  Is natural language processing a way of processing language–a natural way–or is it the processing of a kind of language–natural language?  I love having an ambiguous profession), an exercise that I give students early in the semester is to go through a bunch of things–mostly comics in which ambiguity is the mechanism of the humor–and explain to me how the ambiguity works.  Wanna try it yourself?  Here you go.

Source: Arnold Zwicky, kind-person-to-graduate-students par excellence

Oh–about natural language processing?  It’s processing of “natural language,” which means human languages, as opposed to computer languages.  An essential difference between the two?  All human languages are ambiguous, but no computer language is ambiguous.

French notes

French has lots of words that correspond to the English word when, and knowing when to use each one is essentially beyond me.  (For perspective: I have a C1 level in French.  That’s one higher than you need to attend–or to teach in–a French university.)  The only expression that I sorta know how to use is for saying that something happens at the same time as some event.  It’s lors de.  Here are some examples of it in use:

Notice what lors de modifies here: ma présentation à Versailles, “my presentation at Versailles”–an event.

Here lors de modifies l’Exposition Universelle de 1878–the Universal Expo of 1878. Again: an event.

Lors de son procès: during his trail. Again, an event. Oh, and yes—the botox scandal during the camel beauty contest really did happen. Is happening, actually–12 offending camels found as of yesterday.  Here’s the story on Les matins de France Culture.

Ah, Josephine, if I dared…

Adventures in anaphora resolution: the Alain Bashung version.

A l’arrière des berlines
on devine
des monarques et leurs figurines
juste une paire de demi-dieux
livrés à eux
ils font des petits
ils font des envieux

What the hell is being delivered, and who the hell is it being delivered to? Livrés is masculine plural.  Berlines is feminine plural, so it can’t be the berlines; monarques is masculine plural, so it could be that; figurines is feminine plural, so it can’t be that; une paire de demi-dieux, I don’t know what to say about.  Demi-dieu is masculine (I think), but une paire is feminine and singular–WTF?  I’ve got livrés narrowed down to monarques or demi-dieux, in any case… Then we get to eux in livrés à eux.  My hypothesis: the figurines are being delivered to the monarchs.  Counter-arguments?

à l’arrière des dauphines
je suis le roi des scélérats
à qui sourit la vie

marcher sur l’eau
éviter les péages
jamais souffrir
juste faire hennir
les chevaux du plaisir

osez, osez Joséphine
osez, osez Joséphine

plus rien ne s’oppose à la nuit
rien ne justifie

usez vos souliers
usez l’usurier
soyez ma muse
et que ne durent que les moments doux
durent que les moments doux
et que ne durent que les moments doux

osez, osez Joséphine
osez, osez Joséphine
plus rien ne s’oppose à la nuit
rien ne justifie

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…



Walk of Shame defined: How to show that your research topic is novel

On some interpretation of the word “scientist,” I am a scientist.  In practical terms, that means that I publish a lot, and that when I publish, it’s in journals with names like Genome Biology or Suicide and Life-threatening Behavioror in conferences with names like American Medical Informatics Association Annual Symposium.  That whole “publish a lot” thing is important, and in order to convince people to publish scientific work, you need to convince them that what you’re writing about is something new.  

A common trope for convincing other scientists that what you’ve done is new is by saying some version of “no one has ever published anything about this before.”  …or at least, not very much–not enough.  But, how do you convince an editor that no one else has ever written about your topic?  The best way that I know of is to tell the reader what has been written about the topic that’s close to, and relevant to, what you’re doing, but not quite what you’re doing.

Here’s a version of the convince-the-reader-that-they-should-trust-that-you-know-what-is-and-isn’t-novel-because-you’ve-read-a-ton-about-the-topic strategy in action.  Note that the author doesn’t assert that what they’re writing about has never been written about before–they tell you about a bunch of stuff that has been written about on closely related topics (citing eight specific other works on the subject), and then asserts that there’s still an open question (which, of course, they will answer in their paper):

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 05.13.52

Having been beaten about the head and shoulders with eight citations on the topic, the reader is pretty likely to accept that you know what has and hasn’t been done here.

Here’s another take on the strategy.  The following paragraph follows a fairly detailed discussion of 76 (that’s seventy-six, for those of you who, like me, are so old that you have trouble reading numerals on screens) related papers, books, etc.:

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 05.23.22

The author isn’t letting you decide for yourself what that pile of references means from the perspective of their work–they’re telling you what it means.  That extra step of summarizing is actually the author taking the opportunity to place their work relative to everybody else’s, which lets them show you how their work is different from all of the stuff that ‘s been done before.

These laborieuses pensées (never miss a Montaigne allusion, say I) came to mind while ordering breakfast the other day in Ted’s Bulletin, a cool restaurant in Dupont Circle (or maybe Adams Morgan–I never know where to draw the line between them) with a damn fine breakfast menu.  Perusing said breakfast menu, I noted the following:


Now, I know what a burrito is.  I also know what a “breakfast burrito” is–you would expect it to have eggs and other traditionally American breakfast stuff within.  I also know what the Walk of Shame is.  Here are some definitions, scraped from the wonder that is the Internet:


Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 05.32.54
Source: screen shot of Google’s suggested definition.
Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 05.36.29
Screen shot from


Casting about for reliable sources to cite in this blog post, I came across the following in Brett Lunceford’s paper The walk of shame: A normative description, in the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics.

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 05.39.49
Source: Lunceford, Brett. “The walk of shame: A normative description.” ETC: A review of General Semantics 65.4 (2008): 319-329.

One notable thing about this paper is that in it, Lunceford takes a nice approach to the why-you-should-believe-me-when-I-say-that-no-one-has-done-this-before move.  Here’s where he asserts that what he’s doing is novel (new):

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 05.43.31.png

Did you catch that footnote (endnote, actually) at the end of the first sentence?  Let’s track it down:

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 05.46.36.png

The “only” in I could find only one article implies “I looked hard.”  The description of what the article does and doesn’t say on the subject implies “I actually did read the paper.”  Personally, as an editor, or as a reviewer, or as a reader, I find that convincing.  Sure, it’s possible that the writer of something like this just did a really shitty job of searching–but, that’s not the most obvious conclusion to draw, and most people are going to accept this support for the novelty of the work if they don’t actually, personally, know of relevant prior work that you’ve missed–and if they do, they’re doing you a favor by telling you about it, right?  Brett (the author of the Walk of Shame paper) sees it this way himself.  As he put it to me in a recent email:

I was wary of writing that I couldn’t find anything else on the topic, because there is always a risk that someone will then respond, “You idiot! How could you not know about XYZ’s article on this very topic?” But Penn State had an amazing library with a wide range of sources available to me, so I figured if I couldn’t find it there it was likely not available. But that risk is why most people seem to hedge their bets, as we saw in some of the earlier examples here.

(I didn’t tell Brett that the earlier examples were all from my papers.  I also didn’t tell him that I didn’t realize that it sounded like I was hedging my bets–d’oh!)

As it turns out, Brett’s paper is also an interesting example of how you find a novel topic, as well as the role of your literature review in convincing not just the reviewers, but yourself that you are following a new line of thought.  Brett himself again:

In the field of rhetoric, we are much less concerned with novelty in the subject than we are in a new and different reading of the topic. After all, there are many people still combing over speeches by MLK and Lincoln. So I was under less pressure to find novelty than someone in the sciences. For me, it was genuine surprise – how have we as a scholarly community managed to overlook this? I did not set out to discuss the walk of shame, though. Rather, the walk of shame came to me. When I was teaching a course in small group communication, one assignment was to present an infomercial of a product, real or imagined. One student group presented a “walk of shame” kit. I asked if this was a major issue on campus, and they replied that some people would get up early to taunt those returning to the dorms. This was what got me thinking about the notion of shame. When I looked to see what had been written on the topic, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find anything at all. I found stuff in Cosmo and other popular magazines, but nothing else. It’s rare to find a topic so common, but so overlooked, so I wrote the article.

Picture source:

(That’s my emphasis.)  Now, just because you’ve established that something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean that you’ve established that it would be worth doing it.  Brett takes this up head-on in the conclusion of his article.  He actually combines it nicely with a technique called introducing a nay-sayer—that is, explicitly pointing out a potential counter-argument to what you’re asserting (or in this case, to the idea that anybody should be bothering to read what you’ve written).  The conclusion to his article is as good of an ending to this blog post as I could have written, so I’ll leave you with his words:

The walk of shame may seem an inconsequential matter but linguistic practices that work to police female sexual behavior in this way are links in the chain of female oppression.  These chains can–and should–be broken through critical evaluation of sexual norms and a redefinition of female and male sexual behavior.  But before we can act, we must first begin with how we think about these norms–in short, we must begin with the very words we use to define ourselves, our actions, others, and our relationships.

French notes

la référence or la référence bibliographique : a citation, as in an academic paper.  Frome WikipediaUne référence bibliographique est un ensemble de données permettant d’identifier un document publié, ou une partie de ce document, et d’y faire référence.

Not to be confused with…

la citation : a quote.  From WikipediaUne citation est la reproduction d’un court extrait d’un propos ou d’un écrit antérieur dans la rédaction d’un texte ou dans une forme d’expression orale.

Here we go ’round the mulberry bush

I admit it: I’m an old fuddy-duddy. 

I admit it: I’m an old fuddy-duddy.  [Half of this post seems to have ended up in the English notes below, beginning with fuddy-duddy.] Case in point: I fought like hell the introduction of wikis into the daily working life of our lab.  Eventually, I folded, and it did not go without notice: one day in a lab meeting I mentioned my delight at having edited something on Wikipedia, and one of our graduate students was delighted to point out the unavoidable contrast with my oft-stated position on such things: Ha, Kevin’s using a wiki!  

Today I am delighted once again: I just edited my first French-language Wikipedia entry!  Here’s the before-and-after.  Can you see the word whose spelling I edited–twice?  (You’ll find it in the French notes below.) Of course, being excited about having spotted a French-language spelling error means that before noon I’ll have said something stupid enough to make the entire lab bust out laughing, mais c’est normal, ça, it happens every day anyway…


Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 07.06.19


Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 07.08.10

English notes

old fuddy-duddy: “one that is old-fashioned, unimaginative, or conservative” (Merriam-Webster)


like hell: an intensifying adverb.  It means something like very hard .

How I used it in the post: I fought like hell the introduction of wikis into the daily working life of our lab.  Eventually, I folded, and it did not go without notice.

There’s another use, meaning “very much,” often appearing with the verb to hurt:


…and there’s another use, explained by Merriam-Webster like this:

— used to say in an angry and forceful way that one will not do something, does not agree, etc. “It’s your fault!” “Like hell it is!”


to fold: to give in, to give up, to surrender.

How I used it in the post: I fought like hell the introduction of wikis into the daily working life of our lab.  Eventually, I folded, and it did not go without notice.

to bust out: to suddenly begin doing something–intensely, I think.  You might bust out laughing, for examply–suddenly you start laughing, hard.  This feels pretty informal, limite slang, because of the word bust, which is a low-register word (versus the word to break, which would be a more appropriate choice at work, in a classroom, etc.).

How I used it in the post: Before noon I’ll have said something stupid enough to make the entire lab bust out laughing.

French notes

le mûrier : blackberry bush; mulberry tree

Picture source: Par LPLT — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0,