Do emojis have their own syntax?

So a while ago I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter about whether emojis have syntax. Their original question was this:

As someone who’s studied sign language, my immediate thought was “Of course there’s a directionality to emoji: they encode the spatial relationships of the scene.” This is just fancy linguist talk for: “if there’s a dog eating a hot-dog, and the dog is on the right, you’re going to use ūüĆ≠ūüźē, not ūüźēūüĆ≠.” But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that maybe it would be better not to rely on my intuitions¬†in this case. First, because I know American Sign Language and that might be influencing me and, second, because I am pretty gosh-darn dyslexic¬†and I can’t promise that my really excellent ability to flip adjacent characters doesn’t extend to emoji.

So, like any good behavioral scientist, I ran a little experiment. I wanted to know two things.

  1. Does an emoji description of a scene show the way that things are positioned in that scene?
  2. Does the order of emojis tend to be the same as the ordering of those same concepts in an equivalent sentence?

As it turned out, the answers to these questions are actually fairly intertwined, and related to a third thing I hadn’t actually considered while I was putting together my stimuli (but probably should have): whether there was an agent-patient relationship in the photo.

Agent: The entity in a sentence that’s affecting a changed, the “doer” of the action.

  • The dog ate the hot-dog.
  • The¬†raccoons¬†pushed over all the trash-bins.

Patient: The entity that’s being changed, the “receiver” of the action.

  • The dog ate the hot-dog.
  • The raccoons¬†pushed over all the¬†trash-bins.


To get data, I showed people three pictures and asked them to “pick the emoji sequence that best describes the scene” and then gave them two options that used different orders of the same emoji. Then, once they were done with the emoji part, I asked them to “please type a short sentence to describe each scene”. For all the language data, I just went through and quickly coded the order that the same concepts as were encoded in the emoji showed up.


  • “The dog ate a hot-dog” ¬†-> dog hot-dog
  • “The hot-dog was eaten by the dog” -> hot-dog dog
  • “A dog eating” -> dog
  • “The hot-dog was completely devoured” -> hot-dog

So this gave me two parallel data sets: one with emojis and one with language data.

All together,¬†133 people filled out the emoji half and 127 people did the whole thing, mostly in English (I had one person respond in Spanish and I went ahead and included it).¬†I have absolutely no demographics on my participants, and that’s by design; since I didn’t go through the Institutional Review Board it would actually be unethical for me to collect data about people themselves rather than just general information on language use. (If you want to get into the nitty-gritty this is a really good discussion of different types of on-line research.)

Picture one – A man counting money

Watch, movie schedule, poster, telephone, cashier machine, cash register Fortepan 6680

I picked this photo as sort of a sanity-check: there’s no obvious right-to-left ordering of the man and the money, and there’s one pretty clear¬†way of describing what’s going on in this scene. There’s an¬†agent (the man) and a patient (the money), and since we tend to describe things as agent first, patient second I expected people to pretty much all do the same thing with this picture. (Side note: I¬†know¬†I’ve read a paper about the cross-linguistic tendency for syntactic structures where the agent comes first, but I can’t find it and I don’t remember who it’s by. Please let me know if you’ve got an idea what it could be in the comments–it’s driving me nuts!)


And they did! Pretty much everyone described this picture by putting the man before the money, both with emoji and words. This tells us that, when there’s no information about orientation you need to encode (e.g. what’s on the¬†right or left), people do tend to use emoji in the same order as they would the equivalent words.

Picture two – A man walking by a castle

Ch√Ęteau de Canisy (5)

But now things get a little more complex. What if there¬†isn’t¬†a strong agent-patient relationship and there¬†is¬†a strong orientation in the photo? Here, a man in a red shirt¬†is walking by a castle, but he shows up on the right side of the photo. Will people be more likely to describe this scene with emoji in a way that encodes the relationship of the objects in the photo?


I found that they were–almost four out of five participants described this scene by using the emoji sequence “castle man”, rather than “man castle”. This is particularly striking because, in the sentence writing part of the experiment, most people (over 56%) wrote a sentence where “man/dude/person etc.” showed up before “castle/mansion/chateau etc.”.

So while people can use emoji to encode syntax, they’re¬†also¬†using them to encode spatial information about the scene.

Picture three – A man photographing a model

Photographing a model

Ok, so let’s add a third layer of complexity: what about when spatial information and the syntactic agent/patient relationships are pointing in opposite directions? For the scene above, if you’re encoding the spatial information then you should use an emoji ordering like “woman camera man”, but if you’re encoding an agent-patient relationship then, as we saw in the picture of the man counting money, you’ll probably want to put the agent first: “man camera woman”.

(I leave it open for discussion whether the camera emoji here is representing a physical camera or a verb like “photograph”.)


For this chart I removed some data to make it readable. I kicked out anyone who picked another ordering of the emoji, and any word order that fewer than ten people (e.g. less than 10% of participants) used.

So people were a little more divided here. It wasn’t quite a 50-50 split, but it really does look like you can go either way with this one. The thing that jumped out at me, though, was how the word order and emoji order pattern together: if your sentence is something like “A man photographs a model”, then you are far more likely to use the¬†“man camera woman” emoji ordering. On the other hand, if your sentence is something like “A woman being photographed by the sea” or “Photoshoot by the water”, then it’s more likely that your emoji ordering described the physical relation of the scene.

So what?

So what’s the big takeaway here? Well, one thing is that emoji don’t really have a fixed syntax in the same way language does. If they did, I’d expect that there would be a lot more agreement between people about the right way to represent a scene with emoji. There was a¬†lot¬†of variation.

On the other hand, emoji ordering isn’t just random either. It¬†is¬†encoding information, either about the syntactic/semantic relationship of the concepts or their physical location in space. The problem is that you really don’t have a way of knowing which one is which.

Edit 12/16/2016: The dataset and the R script I used to analyze it are now avaliable on Github.

What’s the difference between & and +?

So if you’re like me, you sometimes take notes on the computer and end up using some shortcuts so you can keep up with the speed of whoever’s talking. One of the short cuts I use a lot is replacing the word “and” with punctuation. When I’m handwriting things I only ever use “+” (becuase I can’t reliably write an ampersand), but in typing I use both “+” and “&”. And I realized recently, after going back to change which one I used, that I had¬†the intuition that they should be used for different things.


I don’t use Ampersands when I’m handwriting things becuase¬†they’re hard to write.

Like sometimes happens with linguistic intuitions, though, I didn’t really have a solid idea of how they were different, just that they were. Fortunately, I had a ready-made way to figure it out. Since I use both symbols on Twitter quite a bit, all I had to do was grab tweets of mine that used either + or & and figure out what the difference was.

I got 450 tweets from between October 7th and November 11th of this year from my own account (@rctatman). I used either & or + in 83 of them, or roughly 18%. This number is a little bit inflated because I was livetweeting a lot of conference talks in that time period, and if a talk has two authors I start every livetweet from that talk with ‚ÄúAuthorName1 & AuthorName2:‚ÄĚ. 43 tweets use¬†& in this way. If we get rid of those, only around 8% of my tweets contain either + or &. They’re still a lot more common in my tweets than in writing in other genres, though, so it’s still a good¬†amount of data.

So what do I use + for? See for yourself! Below are all the things I conjoined with + in my Twitter dataset. (Spelling errors intact. I’m dyslexic, so if I don’t carefully edit text‚ÄĒand even sometimes when I do, to my eternal chagrin‚ÄĒI tend to have a lot of spelling errors. Also, a lot of these tweets are from¬†EMNLP so there’s quite a bit of jargon.)

  • time + space
  • confusable Iberian language + English
  • Data + code
  • easy + nice
  • entity linking + entity clustering
  • group + individual
  • handy-dandy worksheet + tips
  • Jim + Brenda, Finn + Jake
  • Language + action
  • linguistic rules + statio-temporal clustering
  • poster + long paper
  • Ratings + text
  • static + default methods
  • syntax thing + cattle
  • the cooperative principle + Gricean maxims
  • Title + first author
  • to simplify manipulation + preserve struture

If you’ve had some syntactic training, it might jump out to you that most of these things have the same syntactic structure: they’re noun phrases! There are just a couple of exception. The first is ‚Äústatic + default methods‚ÄĚ, where the things that are being conjoined are actually adjectives modifying a single noun. The other is ‚Äúto simplify manipulation + preserve struture‚ÄĚ. I’m going to remain agnostic about where in the verb phrase that coordination is taking place, though, so I don’t get into any syntax arguments ;). That said, this is a fairly robust pattern! Remember that I haven’t been taught any rules about what I ‚Äúshould‚ÄĚ do, so this is just an emergent pattern.

Ok, so what about &? Like I said, my¬†number one use is for conjunction of names. This probably comes from my academic writing training. Most of the papers I read that use author names for in-line citations use an & between them. But I do also use it in the main body of tweets. My use of & is a little bit harder to characterize, so I’m going to go through and tell you about each type of thing.

First, I use it to conjoin user names with the @ tag. This makes sense, since I have a strong tendency to use & with names:

  • @uwengineering & @uwnlp
  • @amazon @baidu @Grammarly & @google

In some cases, I do use it in the same way as I do +, for conjoining noun phrases:

  • Q&A
  • the entities & relations
  • these features & our corpus
  • LSTM & attention models
  • apples & concrete
  • context & content

But I also use it for comparatives:

  • Better suited for weak (bag-level) labels & interpretable and flexible
  • easier & faster

And, perhaps more interestingly, for really high-level conjugation, like at the level of the sentence or entire verb phrase (again, I’m not going to make ANY claims about what happens in and around verbs‚ÄĒyou’ll need to talk to a syntactician for that!).

  • Classified as + or – & then compared to polls
  • in 30% of games the group performance was below average & in 17% group was worse than worst individual
  • math word problems are boring & kids learn better if they’re interested in the theme of the problem
  • our system is the first temporal tagger designed for social media data & it doesn’t require hand tagging
  • use a small labeled corpus w/ small lexicon & choose words with high prob. of 1 label

And, finally, it gets used in sort of miscellaneous places, like hashtags and between URLs.

So & gets used in a lot more places than + does. I think that this is probably because, on some subconscious level I consider & to be the default (or, in linguistics terms, “unmarked“). This might be related to how I’m processing these symbols when I read them. I’m one of those people who hears an internal voice when reading/writing, so I tend to have canonical vocalizations of most typed symbols. I read @ as ‚Äúat‚ÄĚ, for example, and emoticons as a prosodic beat with some sort of emotive sound. Like I read the snorting emoji as the sound of someone snorting. For & and +, I read & as ‚Äúand‚ÄĚ and + as ‚Äúplus‚ÄĚ. I also use ‚Äúplus‚ÄĚ as a conjunction fairly often in speech, as do many of my friends, so it’s possible that it may pattern with my use in speech (I don’t have any data for that, though!). But I don’t say ‚Äúplus‚ÄĚ nearly as often as I say ‚Äúand‚ÄĚ. ‚ÄúAnd‚ÄĚ is definitely the default and I guess that, by extension, & is as well.

Another thing that might possibly be at play here is ease¬†of entering these symbols. While I’m on my phone they’re pretty much equally easy to type, on a full keyboard¬†+ is slightly easier, since I don’t have to reach as far from the shift key. But if that were the only factor¬†my default would be +, so I’m fairly comfortable claiming that the fact that I use & for more types of conjunction is based on the influence of speech.

A BIG caveat before I wrap up‚ÄĒthis is a bespoke analysis. It may hold for me, but I don’t claim that it’s the norm of any of my language communities. I’d need a lot more data for¬†that! That said, I think it’s really neat that I’ve unconsciously fallen into a really regular pattern of use for two punctuation symbols that are basically interchangeable. It’s a great little example of the human tendency to unconsciously¬†tidy up language.

There, their and they’re: linguistics style!

The most frustrating homophone triplet in English is there, their and they’re, which are all said [√į…õr]. They’re¬†a pain, and one that I’ve found that even really smart adults struggle with. And, frankly, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’re not usually taught in a very linguistically sophisticated way. Luckily for y’all, “linguistic sophistication” is my middle name*. And, like all good linguists I’ve got some tests to help you figure out which [√į…õr] you need.


If tests aren‚Äôt your style and you just want to play the odds, though, guess ‚Äútheir‚ÄĚ, ‚Äúthere‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúthey‚Äôre‚ÄĚ in that order. According to Google‚Äôs n-gram viewer (click the chart to go play around with it) ‚Äútheir‚ÄĚ is the most common [√į…õr] in writing, followed by ‚Äúthere‚ÄĚ and then ‚Äúthey‚Äôre‚ÄĚ.

  • There. So the confusing thing here is that there are really *two* there’s in English and they play really different roles.
    • Pleonastic¬†there. So in English we really need subjects, even when we don’t. Some sentences like “It’s raining” and “There’s no more ice-cream” don’t actually need a subject to convey what we’re getting at. There’s no thing, “it”, up in the sky that is doing the raining like there’s a person throwing a ball in “They threw the ball”. We just stick it up in there to fill out our sentence.
      • Test: Can you replace¬†[√į…õr] with “it”? If so, it’s probably “there”.
      • Test: If¬†the sentence has “[√į…õr] was/were/is/are/will” it will almost always be “there”.
    • Locative¬†there. So “locative” is just a fancy word for “relating to a place”. Are you talking about a place? If so, then you probably need “there”.
      • Test: Is [√į…õr]¬†referring to a place? If so, it’s probably “there”.
  • Their. So people tend to use a semantic definition for this one; does it¬†belong¬†to someone? It’s way easier to figure it out with part of speech, though. “Their” is part of a pretty small class of words called “determiners”– you may also have heard ¬†“articles”. One good way to test if a word belongs to the same part of speech as another is to replace it in the sentence. You know “snake” and “pudding” are both nouns because you say either “My snake fell off the shelf” or “My pudding fell off the shelf”. So all you have to do is swap it out with one of the other English Determiners and see if it works.
    • Test: Can you replace¬†[√į…õr] with words like “my”, “our”, “the” or “some”? If so, it’s “their”.
  • They’re. This is probably the easiest one. They’re is a contraction of “they” and “are”. If you can uncontract them and the sentence still works, you’re golden.
    • Test: Can you replace¬†[√į…õr] with “they are”? If so, it’s probably “they’re”.

Try out these tests next time you’re not sure which [√į…õr] is the right one and you should figure it out pretty quickly. Of course, there are some marginal cases (like when you’re talking about the words themselves) that may throw you off, but these guidelines should pull you through 99% of the time.

* Not actually my middle name.

Great Ideas in Linguistics: Grammaticality Judgements

Today’s Great Idea in Linguistics comes to use from syntax. One interesting difference between syntax and other fields of linguistics is what is considered compelling evidence for a theory in syntax. The aim of transformational syntax is to produce a set of rules (originally phrase structure rules) that will let you produce all the grammatical sentences in a language and none of the ungrammatical ones. ¬†So, if you’re proposing a new rule you need to show that the sentences it outputs are grammatical… but how do you do that?

Wessel smedbager04.jpg

I sentence you to ten hours of community service for ungrammatical utterances!

One way to test whether something is grammatical is to see whether someone’s said it before. Back in the day, before you had things like large searchable corpora–or, heck even the internet–this was ¬†difficult, so say the least. Especially since the really interesting syntactic phenomena tend to be pretty rare. Lots of sentences have a subject and an object, but a lot fewer have things like wh-islands.

Another way is to see if someone¬†will¬†say it. This is a methodology that is often used in sociolinguistics research. The linguist interviews someone using questions that are specifically designed to elicit certain linguistic forms, like certain words or sounds. However, this methodology is chancy at best. Often times the person won’t produce whatever it is you’re looking for. Also it can be very hard to make questions or prompts to access very rare forms.

Another way to see whether¬†something is grammatical is to see whether someone¬†would¬†say it. This is the type of evidence that has, historically, been used most often in syntax research. The concept is straightforward. You present a speaker of a language with a possible sentence and ¬†they use thier intuition as a native speaker to determine whether it’s good (“grammatical”) or not (“ungrammatical”). These sentences are often outputs of a proposed structure and used to argue either for or against it.

However, in practice grammaticality judgements can occasionally be a bit more difficult. Think about the following sentences:

  • I ate the carrot yesterday.
    • This sounds pretty good to me. I’d say it’s “grammatical”.
  • *I did ate the carrot yesterday.
    • I put a star (*) in front of this sentence because it sounds bad to me, and I don’t think anyone would say it. I’d say it’s “ungrammatical”.
  • ? I done ate the carrot yesterday.
    • This one is a little more borderline. It’s actually something I might say, but only in a very informal context and I realize that not everyone would say it.

So if you were a syntactician¬†working on these sentences, you’d have to decide whether¬†your model should account for the last sentence or not. One way to get around this is by building probability into the syntactic structure. So I’m more¬†likely¬†to use a structure that produces¬†the first example but there’s a small probability I might use the structure in the third example. To know what those probabilities are, however, you need to figure out how likely people are to use each of the competing structures (and whether there are other factors at play, like dialect) and for that you need either lots and lots of grammaticality judgements. It’s a new use of a traditional tool that’s helping to expand¬†our understanding of language.

New series: 50 Great Ideas in Linguistics

As I’ve been teaching this summer (And failing to blog on a semi-regular basis like a loser. Mea culpa.) I’ll occasionally find that my students aren’t familiar with something I’d assumed they’d covered at some point already. I’ve also found that there are relatively few resources for looking up linguistic ideas that don’t require a good deal of specialized knowledge going in. SIL’s glossary of linguistic terms¬†is good but pretty jargon-y, and the various¬†handbooks tend not to have on-line versions. And even with a concerted effort by linguists¬†to make Wikipedia a good resource, I’m still not 100% comfortable with recommending that my students use it.

Therefore! I’ve decided to make my own list of Things That Linguistic-Type People Should Know and then slowly work on expounding on them. I have something to point my students to and it’s a nice bite-sized way to talk about things; perfect for a blog.

Here, in no particular order, are 50ish Great Ideas of Linguistics sorted by sub-discipline. (You may notice a slightly sub-disciplinary bias.) I might change my mind on some of these–and feel free to jump in with suggestions–but it’s a start. Look out for more posts on them.

  • Sociolinguistics
    • Sociolinguistic variables
    • Social class and language
    • Social networks
    • Accommodation
    • Style
    • Language change
    • Linguistic security
    • Linguistic awareness
    • Covert and overt prestige
  • Phonetics
    • Places of articulation
    • Manners of articulation
    • Voicing
    • Vowels and consonants
    • Categorical perception
    • “Ease”
    • Modality
  • Phonology
    • Rules
    • Assimilation and dissimilation
    • Splits and mergers
    • Phonological change
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
    • Pragmatics
    • Truth values
    • Scope
    • Lexical semantics
    • Compositional semantics
  • Computational linguistics
    • Classifiers
    • Natural Language Processing
    • Speech recognition
    • Speech synthesis
    • Automata
  • Documentation/Revitalization
    • Language death
    • Self-determination
  • Psycholinguistics

Meme Grammar

So the goal of linguistics is to find and describe the systematic ways in which humans use language. And boy howdy do we humans love using language systematically. A great example of this is internet memes.

What are internet memes? Well, let’s start with the idea of a “meme”. “Memes” were¬†posited¬†by Richard Dawkin in his book¬†The¬†Selfish¬†Gene. He used the term to¬†describe¬†cultural¬†ideas that are transmitted from individual to individual much like a virus or bacteria. The science mystique I’ve written about is a great example of a meme of this type. If you have fifteen minutes, I suggest Dan Dennett’s TED talk on the subject of memes as a much more thorough¬†introduction.

So what about the internet part? Well, internet memes tend to be a bit narrower in¬†their scope. Viral videos, for example, seem to be a¬†separate category from¬†intent¬†memes even though they clearly fit into Dawkin’s idea of what a meme is. Generally, “internet¬†meme” refers to a specific image and text that is associated with that image. These are generally called image macros. (For a through analysis of emerging and¬†successful¬†internet memes, as well as an excellent object lesson in why you shouldn’t scroll down to read the comments, I suggest Know Your Meme.) It’s the text that I’m particularly interested in here.

Memes which involve language require that it be used in a very¬†specific¬†way, and failure to obey these rules results in social consequences. In order to keep this post a manageable size, I’m just going to look at the use of language in the two most popular image memes, as ranked by¬†, though there is a¬†lot¬†more to study here. (I think a study of the¬†differing¬†uses of the initialisms MRW [my reaction when] ¬†and MFW [my face when] on imgur and 4chan would show some very interesting patterns in the construction of identity¬†in the two communities. Particularly since the 4chan community is made up of anonymous individuals and the imgur¬†community¬†is made up of named individuals who are attempting to gain status through points. But that’s a discussion for another day…)

The God tier (i.e. most popular) characters at on the website Meme Generator as of February 23rd, 2013. Click for link to site.

The God tier (i.e. most popular) characters at on the website Meme Generator as of February 23rd, 2013. Click for link to site. If you don’t recognize all of these characters,¬†congratulations¬†on not spending all your free time on the internet.

Without further ado, let’s get to the grammar. (I know y’all are excited.)

Y U No

This meme is particularly interesting because its page on Meme Generator already has a grammatical description.

The Y U No meme actually began as Y U No Guy but eventually evolved into simply Y U No, the phrase being generally followed by some often ridiculous suggestion. Originally, the face of Y U No guy was taken from Japanese cartoon Gantz‚Äô Chapter 55: Naked King, edited, and placed on a pink wallpaper. The text for the item reads ‚ÄúI TXT U ‚Ķ Y U NO TXTBAK?!‚ÄĚ It appeared as a Tumblr file, garnering over 10,000 likes and reblogs.

It went totally viral, and has morphed into hundreds of different forms with a similar theme. When it was uploaded to MemeGenerator in a format that was editable, it really took off. The formula used was : ‚Äú(X, subject noun), [WH]Y [YO]U NO (Y, verb)?‚ÄĚ.¬†[Bold mine.]

A pretty good try, but it can¬†definitely¬†be improved upon. There are always two¬†distinct¬†groupings of text in this meme, always in impact font, white with a black border and in all caps. This is pretty consistent across all image macros. In order to indicate the break between the two text chunks, I will use —¬†throughout¬†this post. The chunk of text that appears above the image is a noun phrase that directly addresses someone or something, often a famous individual or corporation. The bottom text starts with “Y U NO” and finishes with a verb phrase. The verb phrase is an¬†activity¬†or action that the addressee from the first block of text could¬†or¬†should¬†have done, and that the meme creator considers positive. It is also inflected¬†as if “Y U NO” were structurally¬†equivalent¬†to “Why didn’t you”. So, since you would ask Steve Jobs “Why didn’t you donate more money to charity?”, a grammatical meme to that effect would be “STEVE JOBS — Y U NO DONATE MORE MONEY TO CHARITY”. In effect, this meme questions someone or thing who had the agency to do something positive why they chose not to do that thing. While this certainly has the¬†potential to be a¬†vehicle¬†for social commentary, like most memes it’s mostly used for comedic effect. Finally, there is some variation in the¬†punctuation¬†of this meme. While no¬†punctuation¬†is the most common, an exclamation¬†points, a question mark or both are all used. I would¬†hypothesize¬†that the the use of punctuation varies between internet communities… but I don’t really have the time or space to get into that here.

A meme (created by me using Meme Generator) following the guidelines outlined above.

Futurama Fry

This meme also has a brief grammatical analysis

The text surrounding the meme picture, as with other memes, follows a set formula. This phrasal template goes as follows: ‚ÄúNot sure if (insert thing)‚ÄĚ, with the bottom line then reading ‚Äúor just (other thing)‚ÄĚ. It was first utilized in another meme entitled ‚ÄúI see what you did there‚ÄĚ, where Fry is shown in two panels, with the first one with him in a wide-eyed expression of surprise, and the second one with the familiar half-lidded expression.

As an example of the phrasal template, Futurama Fry can be seen saying: ‚ÄúNot sure if just smart ‚Ķ. Or British‚ÄĚ. Another example would be ‚ÄúNot sure if highbeams ‚Ķ or just bright headlights‚ÄĚ. The main form of the meme seems to be with the text ‚ÄúNot sure if trolling or just stupid‚ÄĚ.

This meme is particularly interesting¬†because¬†there seems to an¬†extremely¬†rigid syntactic structure. The phrase follow the form “NOT SURE IF _____ — OR _____”. The first blank can either be filled by a complete sentence or a subject complement while the second blank¬†must¬†be filled by a subject complement. Subject complements, also called predicates (But only by linguists; if you learned about predicates in school it’s probably something different. A subject complement is more like a¬†predicate¬†adjective or predicate noun.), are everything that can come after a form of the verb “to be” in a sentence. So, in a sentence like “It is raining”, “raining” is the subject complement. So, for the Futurama¬†Fry meme, if you wanted to indicate that you were uncertain whther it was raining or sleeting, both of these forms would be correct:


Note that, if a complete sentence is used and abbreviation is possible, it must be abbreviated. Thus the following sentence is not a good Futurama Fry sentence:


This is particularly interesting ¬†because¬†the “phrasal template” description¬†does not include this distinction, but it is quite robust. This is a great example of how humans notice and¬†perpetuate¬†linguistic¬†patterns that they aren’t necessarily aware of.

A meme (created by me using Meme Generator) following the guidelines outlined above. If¬†you’re¬†not sure whether it’s phonetics or phonology, may I recommend this post¬†as a quick refresher?

So this is obviously very interesting to a linguist, since we’re really interested in extracting and distilling those patterns. But why is this useful/interesting to those of you who aren’t¬†linguists? A couple of reasons.

  1. I hope you find it at least a little interesting and that it helps to enrich your¬†knowledge¬†of your experience as a human. Our capacity for patterning is so robust that it affects almost every aspect of our¬†existence and yet it’s easy to forget that, to let our awareness of that slip our of our¬†conscious minds. Some patterns deserve to be examined and¬†criticized, though, and¬†¬†linguistics provides an excellent low-risk training ground for that kind of analysis.
  2. If you are involved in internet communities I hope you can use this new knowledge to avoid the social consequences of violating meme grammars. These consequences can range from a gentle reprimand to mockery and scorn The gatekeepers of internet culture are many, vigilant and vicious.
  3. As with much linguistic inquiry, accurately noting and describing these patterns is the first step towards being able to use them in a useful way. I can think of many uses, for example, of a program that did large-scale sentiment analyses of image macros but was able to determine which were grammatical (and therefore more likely to be accepted and propagated by internet communities) and which were not.

The Many Moods of “Alarming”

So you’ll all be doubtless relieved to know that I have cheerfully settled in Seattle and¬†immediately¬†returned to my old tricks. Observe this gem¬†brought¬†to you by Seattle City Light:

Something’s alarming right enough… but I think it’s actually my linguistics sense.

Now, as both a linguist and native speaker of American English, I find this command troubling. Not¬†because¬†I have a problem with civic-minded¬†individuals¬†alerting the power company to potentially dangerous problems, but¬†because¬†it’s¬†ambiguous. I’ve written about¬†ambiguity¬†in language¬†before, but it’s something that I revisit often and it’s a complex enough subject that you can easily spend an entire lifetime studying it, let alone more than one blog post.

Let’s examine¬†why¬†this sign is¬†ambiguous a little more closely.

First, there’s (what I would consider) a non-standard usage of the word “alarming”. ¬†I¬†tend to imagine something that is “alarming” to be capable of putting me in a state of alarm, rather than currently expressing alarm. Or, as the OED puts it:

“Disturbing or exciting with the apprehension of danger.”

Yeah, that’s right, “alarming” is one of the few words that the OED only has one definition for. Let’s put that aside for the moment, though, and assume that there’s a¬†linguistically-creative sign maker working for Seattle City Light who has coined a neologism based on parallels with words like “understanding” or “revolving”. The real crux of the matter is that the command is not a sentence, and has just too many gaps where the reader has to fill in information.

These are just a couple of the possible interpretations I came up for the sign:

  • If [the alarm is] alarming (in the sense of performing the action which alarms traditionally do, such as¬†whooping¬†and revolving) [then] call.
  • If [you are] alarming [other people, then] call.
  • If [the alarm is] alarming [you, regardless of¬†whether¬†or not it’s currently flashing or making noise then] call.

Now, English syntax is a pretty¬†resilient¬†beast and can put up with a certain amount of words ¬†left out. The fancy linguistics term for this is “ellipsis“, just like the¬†punctuation¬†mark. (This one: …) Words have to be left out of of certain places in certain ways, ¬†though. Like you don’t have to say “you”¬†every time¬†you tell someone to do something. “Don’t sit there!” is perfectly acceptable as a sentence, and if someone told ¬†you that you’d have no problem figuring out that they were telling¬†you¬†not to sit on¬†their¬†cat. Like everything else in¬†language, though, there are rules and by breaking them you run the risk of failing to communicate what you’re trying to… just like this sign.

That’s so meta meta meta

Today, I’m going to introduce you to two of my very good friends in linguistics: “metalinguistic” and “recursive“. They’re not that closely related, but they tend to get asked if they’re sisters a lot. Why?

Well, metalinguistic knowledge is knowing about language, and the fact that you can read this shows that you must have some metalinguistic knowledge. But this blog (and the field of linguistics as a whole) is concerned with knowing about what you know about language, i.e. meta-metalinguistic knowledge. And just just talking about that, I’m adding another level. My discussion of what we know about linguistics gets us all the way to meta-meta-metalinguistic knowledge. And by talking about that… You get the picture.

The picture looks like this.

The picture is also recursive. One of my favorite examples of recursivity is PHP. Originally, the acronym stood for “Personal Home Page”, but it now stands for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor“. What does the PHP in that stand for? Why, for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”, of course. (Repeat ad nauseum, or at least ad getting-punched-in-the-arm.) Or, wait, maybe it’s cats looking at cats looking at cats looking at cast looking at cats…

So you can see how they’re related, right? They’re both all about making you feel dizzy and then fall down, or maybe puke if you get motion sickness.

But what you may not know about recursivity is that it’s a very important process in linguistics as well. How so, you might ask?¬† Well, remember in the days of yore (yesterday was totally a day of yore) when I told you all about generativity? Recursivity is a great example of one of those generative processes. You can have a recursive sentence that just goes on forever. How about when you’re describing where you learned something?

I heard it from Jen.

Well, what if Jen heard it from someone else?

I heard it from Jen who heard it from Ian.

And then you find out that Ian wasn’t the originator either.

I heard it from Jen, who heard it from Ian, who heard it from Zach, who heard it from Nick, who heard it from Clarice…

And so on and so forth.You can pretty much keep going on infinitely. You can do it with other types of phrases to.

Get the butter from the fridge by the stove behind the water buffalo next to the peat coal kiln…

Chomsky argued that recursion is the fundamental characteristic of human languge, and this has been the cause of some debate. (Pirah√£¬† may be the most argued-about Non-Indo-European language ever.) So recursion has two main uses in linguistics. The first is as a generative process that allows speakers to form infinitely long sentences, and the other is to use language about using language about using language about using language about using language about using language about using language…