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!

 

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

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.

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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