Time-travelling verb tenses must will have existed

January 20, 2014

Brian Clegg’s entertaining pop-physics book Build Your Own Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel (2011) has a couple of amusing examples of how grammar gets wonky when you’re talking about time travel. The first example comes in a discussion of what’s called the block universe model, which encompasses “all of space and all time that will ever be”:

If the block universe is the correct picture, even if we managed to travel backward in time, we could never do anything that would change the future, at least within a particular quantum version of the universe. Because the future and the past already exist in the block, any action we take must already exist. (We have trouble with tenses emerging from time travel here. It might be more accurate to say that any action must will have existed.)

Later, Clegg talks about “Destination Day” in Perth, when a time and place were announced to welcome possible visitors from the future. (Similar events have taken place in MIT and Baltimore.) Note that the DD website is no longer directly accessible and can be reached only in cached form via tools like the Wayback Machine – the internet equivalent of time travel. Clegg:

I can’t find any official description of what happened that day in Perth, but I suspect there was some form of welcoming committee, eagerly anticipating visitors from the future to pop into existence. Of course now March 31, 2005, is in the past, and we aren’t so much awaiting them as we have been were awaiting them.

Have been were awaiting: lovely. I recently noted that English has no future tense, but whether the grammar of time travel would be easier if it did is a question for another day. As things stand English verb tenses, Clegg concludes, “definitely aren’t designed to cope with time travel”. This is good to already will have known.


‘Because’ is the 2013 Word of the Year, because woo! Such win

January 4, 2014

Here’s a fun bit of news. In Minneapolis last night the American Dialect Society (ADS) declared because its Word of the Year 2013. Going up against topical heavyweights like selfie, Bitcoin, Obamacare, and twerk, the humble conjunction-turned-maybe-preposition proved a surprising and emphatic winner with 127 votes.

Well, surprising to some – in a post I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog before Christmas, I named because X my word/phrase of the year. I didn’t dwell on it because I’ve already written about it at length, in ‘Because’ has become a preposition, because grammar, where I described it as a “succinct and expressive” innovation.

That post on because X (the title of which I regret) ended up getting quite a lot of attention, thanks in part to Megan Garber’s follow-up for the Atlantic, which spread to various other news and aggregator sites. It also stoked considerable debate because even linguists disagree about because‘s grammatical identity in the construction.

It’s sometimes called because NOUN, but I avoid this because it also licenses verbs, adjectives, and interjections; see my earlier post for examples. As Ben Zimmer put it, 2013 saw because “[explode] with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use”, while his Word Routes report says it’s “fitting that a bunch of language scholars would celebrate such a linguistically innovative form”.

stan carey - doge meme - wow, such win, because grammar, so amaze, much usage, very language

The American Dialect Society’s WOTY event is the biggie for language nerds, not least because it has a range of interesting categories. A couple of days ago I emailed the ADS with my nominations, which I then posted on Twitter:

A new category this year was Most Productive, which was dominated by affixes and libfixes like –splaining and –shaming. I was glad least untruthful won Most Euphemistic, and disappointed that catfish trumped doge for Most Creative. See the ADS press release for all the nominations and vote counts, and Ben Zimmer’s post for commentary.

Because also won Most Useful, closely beating slash in the latter’s new guise as a coordinating conjunction. I wrote briefly and approvingly about this use of slash last year, and I’d like to have seen the honours shared. But impossible, because temporal asymmetry, so whatever. If this slash keeps spreading, though, its day slash night will come.

I’ll be returning to the subject of ungrammatical wordplay memes – why they appeal, what motivates them, and so on – in a later post. Because such fascinate, and very language.

Update 1: 

I’ve been waiting for someone to analyse the grammar of because X, because there’s a lot of uncertainty over whether it’s acting as a preposition, and I’m not qualified to adjudicate. Also, in my earlier post on because X I noted that it wasn’t just because behaving this way: so, also, but, thus et al. were doing so too.

Now, at All Things Linguistic, Gretchen McCulloch has posted a very helpful deconstruction of the construction [and see the comments on her post for discussion]: Why the new “because” isn’t a preposition (but is actually cooler):

It’s not that because is newly a preposition: depending on your definition, it’s either still not a preposition or it always has been. Instead, it’s that subordinating conjunctions as a class are appearing in a new type of construction, that is, with interjectional complements in addition to the prepositional phrases and clauses that we’ve seen for a long time. Harder to explain maybe, but the data’s very robust and the results are pretty cool.

Interjectional complements doesn’t make for snappy headlines like new preposition does, but that’s immaterial. I find Gretchen’s analysis persuasive, and the discussions she’s had with other linguists (some are linked from her post) suggest a degree of consensus. Competing hypotheses might emerge, but I’m gravitating around this one for now.

Update 2:

At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum takes polite but firm issue with McCulloch’s interpretation, in a post on the promiscuity of prepositions:

[T]he mistake of trusting a standard dictionary definition of “preposition” has misled All Things Linguistic (and even Stan Carey to some extent), just like it misleads everyone else.

Also on this topic, Neal Whitman has a good post at Visual Thesaurus in which he explains why because was awarded WOTY, and how different grammatical schools of thought mean there are different ways of interpreting because X:

So yes, because is a preposition, but not on account of this new usage. But there’s still the question of exactly what kind of complement this particular prepositional flavor of because takes. . . . The freshest examples of because X don’t fit McCulloch’s rule that X can stand alone, and they’re not used ironically.

At the Dictionary.com blog, Jane Solomon summarises reaction to the new construction, ponders its origin and grammar, and wonders what we should call it:

There is currently not any sort of consensus among linguists over the part of speech of this new because, though this might change as the discussion continues. I personally feel that because x is the safest moniker for the time being. As far as the part of speech goes, the grammar classification might further shift as English speakers play with and develop the new uses of because x.

Tyler Schnoebelen at the Idibon blog has done some serious number-crunching on this, analysing twenty-something thousand tweets for patterns of because X (the top X? Yolo). For stats, laughs, and useful academic links, read his post ‘Innovating because innovation.’

More discussion and links at Language Log’s ‘ADS WOTY: “Because”‘; and Language Hat’s ‘Because (Prep).’

Photo of Kabosu by Atsuko Sato, modified because doge.

Non-restrictive ‘that’, that can be ambiguous

December 15, 2013

Non-restrictive relative clauses, which are structured like the one you’re reading now, are usually set off by a comma followed by the relative pronoun which or who. Very occasionally that is used, and its rarity (and sometime ambiguity) sounds my Curious Grammar Klaxon.

A note on terminology: non-restrictive relative clauses are also called non-defining or supplementary relatives, distinct from restrictive, defining, or integrated relatives. (There’s more on this and associated “which-hunting” in my oversized that/which grammar post.)

A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar says non-restrictive that relatives are “extremely rare and really only marginally present in Standard English”. True enough, but I tend to come across at least a few a year. Here’s an oldish one in J. W. N. Sullivan’s 1927 book Beethoven:

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‘Because’ has become a preposition, because grammar

November 13, 2013

If the title of this post made perfect sense to you, then you’re way ahead of me. But just in case, we’d best recap. Neal Whitman wrote a good article at Grammar Girl recently on the possible origins of because as a standalone preposition. This helpful passage from Whitman sets out the context:

In Standard English, the word “because” can be used two ways. One of them is to introduce a clause, as in “Aardvark was late because he was waiting for the repairman to show up.” Used this way, “because” is a subordinating conjunction. The other is to team up with “of” to form what’s called a compound preposition. For example, “Aardvark was late because of heavy traffic.” In the past three or four years, though, a new usage for “because” has been developing.

The new usage – older than 3–4 years, mind – is what Laura Bailey and Mark Liberman, respectively, have referred to as “because+noun” and “because NOUN”. Liberman says the idiom usually seems to imply “that the referenced line of reasoning is weak”. Sometimes, yes, but it’s also commonly used just for convenience, or effect: No work tomorrow because holidays!; Of course evolution is true, because science.

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And I’m like, Quotative ‘like’ isn’t just for quoting

August 1, 2013

A few tweets from earlier today, to introduce and summarise the topic:

[An interesting discussion ensued that I'll assemble on Storify later. Update: Here's the Storify chat.]

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A hovering dangling modifier

June 6, 2013

Dangling modifiers may seem pretty harmless, unlikely even to be noticed except by editors and eagle-eyed readers. But at their worst they can evoke images so silly or outlandish as to invite ridicule – or at least editorial protest.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls danglers “a venial sin at most” and says they are “common, old, and well-established in English literature”. It offers examples from Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among others:

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Ending a sentence with 15+ prepositions

January 14, 2013

One of daftest and dustiest old grammar myths is the unfounded rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. This fake proscription seems to have been invented by a Latin-loving John Dryden in 1672 and, like an indestructible demonic meme, continues to gnaw at people’s minds centuries later. Some even believe it.

Avoiding preposition-stranding (as it’s known) can have deliberately comical results, famously in not-Churchill’s “arrant nonsense up with which I will not put”. And then there’s the well-known line contrived to end in a whole stack of prepositions: “What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of [about Down Under] up for?”

A couple of those “prepositions” might be better described as adverbs, but anyway. Variations on this line abound; until lately, though, I had never seen one so extravagant as this 15-preposition-pile monster:

What did you bring me the magazine I didn’t want to be read to out of about ‘”Over Under Sideways Down” up from Down Under’ up around for?

See Futility Closet for context, involving recursion and lighthouses. After I linked to it on Twitter, a couple of people pointed out that the line cheats by ignoring the use–mention distinction – that is, many of the prepositions aren’t used as prepositions. (Also: adverbs.) But I think cheating is allowed here in the interests of silliness.


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