How do we get good at using language?

Or: What the hell is a figure of speech anyway?

At a certain level I have the same level of English competence as Katie Crutchfield, Josh Gondelman, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This may seem boastful to a delusional degree of me, but we’re all native speakers of a North American variety of English of a similar age, and this is the level of competence that linguists tend to care about. Indeed, according to our best theories of language, the four of us are practically indistinguishable.

Of course, outside of providing grammaticality judgements, I wouldn’t place myself anywhere near those three, each of whom could easily be counted among the most skilled users of English living. But what does it mean for people to have varied levels of skill in their language use? And is this even something that linguistic theory should be concerned about?

Linguists, of course, have settled on 5 broad levels of description of a given language

  1. Phonetics
  2. Phonology
  3. Morphology
  4. Syntax
  5. Semantics

It seems quite reasonable to say we can break down language skill along these lines. So, skilled speakers can achieve a desire effect by manipulating their phonetics, say by raising their voices, hitting certain sounds in a particular way, or the like. Likewise, phonological theory can provide decent analyses of rhyme, alliteration, rhythm etc. Skilled users of a language also know when to use (morphologically) simple vs complex words, and which word best conveys the meaning they intend. Maybe a phonetician, phonologist, morphologist, or semanticist, will disagree, but these seem like fairly straightforward to formalize, because they all involve choosing from among a finite set of possibilities—a language only has so many lexical entries to choose from. What does skill mean in the infinite realm of syntax? What does it mean to choose the correct figure of speech? Or even more basically, how does one express any figure of speech in the terms of syntactic theory?

It’s not immediately obvious that there is any way to answer these questions in a generative theory for the simple reason that figures of speech are global properties of expressions, while grammatical theory deals in local interactions between parts of expressions. Take an example from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

(1) Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

There are three syntactic processes employed by Lincoln here that I can point out:

(2) Right Node Raising
Fondly do we hope that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away, and fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. -> (1)

(3) Subject-Aux Inversion
Fondly we hope … -> (1)

(4) Adverb fronting
We hope fondly… -> (1)

Each of these represents a choice—conscious or otherwise—that Lincoln made in writing his speech and, while most generative theories allow for choices to be made, they are not at the same levels.

Minimalist theories, for instance, allow for choices at each stage of sentence construction—you can either move constituent, add a constituent, or stop the derivation. Each of (3) and (4) could conceivably be represented as a single choice, but it seems highly unlikely that (2) could. In fact, there is nothing approaching a consensus as to how right node raising is achievable, but it is almost certainly a complex phenomenon. It’s not as if we have a singular operation RNR(X) which changes a mundane sentence into something like (1), yet Lincoln and other writers and orators seem to have it as a tool in their rhetorical toolboxes.

Rhetorical skill of this kind suggest the possibility of a meta-grammatical knowledge, which all speakers of a language have to some extent, and which highly skilled users have in abundance. But what could this meta-grammatical knowledge consist of? Well, if the theoretical representation of a sentence is a derivation, then the theoretical representation of a figure of speech would be a class of derivations. This suggests an ability to abstract over derivations in some way and therefore, it suggests that we are able to acquire not just lexical items, but also abstractions of derivations.

This may seem to contradict the basic idea of Minimalism by suggesting two grammatical systems and indeed, it might be a good career move on my part to declare that the fact of figures of speech disproves the SMT, but I don’t see any contradiction inherent here. In fact, what I’m suggesting here and have argued for elsewhere is something that is a fairly basic observation from computer science and mathematical logic—that the distinction between operations and operands is not that distinct. I am merely suggesting that part of a mature linguistic knowledge is higher-order grammatical functions—functions that operate on other functions and/or yield other functions—and that, since any recursive system is probably able to represent higher-order functions, we should absolutely expect our grammars to allow for them.

Assuming this sort of abstraction is available and responsible for figures of speech, our task as theorists then is to figure out what form the abstraction takes, and how it is acquired, so I can stop comparing myself to Katie Crutchfield, Josh Gondelman, and AOC.

My Top Culture Things of 2022

It’s the end of 2022 and I’ve got nothing else to do, so I thought I’d share some of the works of culture that really made my year (even including things that weren’t made in 2022).

I did one of these before in 2019, but something happened (and continues to happen) and I missed the following two years, so a couple of these might be things I discovered in 2020 or 2021 but continued to really enjoy this year.

The Revolutions Podcast by Mike Duncan

The first episode or Revolutions came out in 2013 the series finale was just released on Christmas day of 2022. I started listening to it this year and managed to go through the entire catalogue. It’s a sprawling look at the revolutionary period that was kicked off by the English civil wars and ended with the Russian Revolution, including the revolutions in the US, Central/South America, Haiti, and Mexico, the several revolutions in France, and the revolutionary uprisings in 1848. I was initially skeptical of the idea of an American podcaster recounting revolutions, fearing it might end up being nothing but simplistic narratives, but I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance and detail that Duncan draws out of these histories. He covers the historical, political, and even ecological factors that shaped revolutions, and draws interesting connections and parallels between seemingly unrelated revolutions. If I had one critique it would be that, while Duncan certainly doesn’t endorse a Great Man theory of history, he does, in my opinion, give fairly short shrift to popular movements that lack a charismatic leader—anarchists in the Russian Revolution, Anti-Federalists in the US, The Diggers in the English civil wars, to name a few. This is certainly an unfair critique stemming from my own biases, and it in no way detracts from my enjoyment of the podcast.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

“In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” This is the opening line of Orwell’s Roses, and in some ways the puzzle that its author Rebecca Solnit is trying to solve—why would an apparently grim pessimist like Orwell bother with planting something as apparently frivolous as roses? The book is an exploration of both Orwell and roses and a refutation of their reputations as being grim and frivolous respectively. Solnit’s almost stream-of-consciousness style of writing belies the fact that she’s making an argument and backing it up with research and reason. The argument seems to be a perennial one on the left as to what place the non-material welfare of people should matter—should leftists be concerned with beautiful things like roses, or are such concerns ultimately bourgeois? Solnit is decidedly on the side of roses, and argues that Orwell was too.

The book somehow manages to be extremely readable but dense, poetic but journalistic . Definitely worth it.


I’ve been pretty much done with Star Wars for a few years now. I didn’t see The Rise of Skywalker and other than The Mandolorian—which I watched because I was out of things to watch in lockdown and would describe as “fine”—I’ve steered clear of the streaming shows. So when I heard they were making a series about the origin story of the second lead in Rogue One—A film I enjoyed—I thought “wow, they’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel here”, and boy was I wrong! Everything about the show feels fresh, its links to the Star Wars canon are so tenuous that it could almost not even be a Star Wars series, and it definitely has something to say. Even the choice of protagonist—Cassian Andor, the petty thief transformed into a revolutionary—is interesting precisely because, as Alan Sepinwall notes, Cassian might be the least compelling character in the show. But while Sepinwall sees this as a flaw, I can’t help but see it as a secret weapon. Because Cassian doesn’t hog the screen, the secondary and tertiary characters get to have their say and make their perspectives known. Andor, much like The Wire—a comparison already made by David Klion—is ultimately a social drama. It’s much more interested in exploring the links between capitalism, imperialism, colonialism and fascism, and the nuances of resistance and rebellion—the showrunner, Tony Gilroy, apparently listens to the Revolutions podcast—than any individual relationships, though it doesn’t shy away from exploring the personal impacts of the social.

Actual critics have done the show more justice than I can, but one last thing I want to highlight is the score by Nicholas Britell, which has the epic orchestral sweeps that you’d expect but also jarringly centers a wobbly detuned synth for much of the score, highlighting the fact that the world of the show is rather shaky—teetering on the brink of collapse. Again, really not something I expected from a Star Wars franchise.

The Sloppy Boys Podcast/The Blowout

The Sloppy Boys are a comedy party rock band consisting of Jeff Dutton, Mike Hanford, and Tim Kalpakis, all former members of The Birthday Boys sketch group. In 2020, just when COVID hit, they released their third album Paradiso, and without the possibility of touring to promote the album, they decided to start a cocktail podcast. Tale as old as time, really.

The premise of the show is simple: every week, the Boys make a new cocktail—the Trinidad Sour was an early classic—and talk about it. Add to that the fact that these are three good friends and some of the funniest guys on the planet and they legitimately make each other laugh and you’ve got an excellent podcast. They also have a second show The Blowout available to Patreon subscribers—patróns in the parlance of the show—where they talk about whatever they want—best guitar solo, taking a bath, going to the mall, the 80s movie Gremlins, the best Christmas aspect, to name a few. It’s sometimes truly the thinnest of premises but Jeff, Mike, and Tim always manage to make it great!

LIFE ON EARTH by Hurray For The Riff Raff

Hurray For The Riff Raff is the musical project of Alynda Segarra, a singer-songwriter originally from The Bronx, who formed the band when they moved to New Orleans. I first encountered Hurray For The Riff Raff in their 2017 album The Navigator—an album which you should absolutely seek out—and they released LIFE ON EARTH this year. While The Navigator was big and overtly political, LIFE ON EARTH kind of snuck up on me. It’s a smaller sort of album and much earthier than its predecessor—with titles like “WOLVES”, “RHODODENDRON“, “JUPITER’S DANCE” and “ROSEMARY TEARS“—but not devoid of politics—”PRECIOUS CARGO” tells the story of a migrant coming across the US/Mexico border only to be abused by US authorities. I don’t think it got much press, but when I was reviewing the music I’d listened to this year, I realized LIFE ON EARTH had really wormed its way into my rotation as one of my familiar records, even though it’s less than a year old.

Honourable mentions

The Time of Monsters Podcast with Jeet Heer.

Jeet Heer is a Canadian journalist and critic. On his podcast he talks with other commentators about some current topic in the news, politics, or culture.The podcast is also completely unpolished, which very much adds to its charm.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

A wonderfully unique movie amid what’s become the standard fare of Disney-owned IP and other studios trying to emulate/compete with Disney. Any attempt to describe the plot would do it a great disservice, so all I can say is you should watch it if you can.

Roses by Jadea Kelly

I met Jadea in undergrad where she would often perform at our college open mic. She was clearly talented so when she sent out a Kickstarter request to help fund her next album I was happy to throw in a few bucks. Flash forward several years to 2022, when I get notified that her album is complete and a CD is on its way to me. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was completely floored by what I heard—well-written songs with mature poignant lyrics beautifully performed and produced. An early standout and still one of my favourite tracks: “When I Fly”

Dan Padley

A jazz guitarist out of Iowa City IA, I met Dan through the Sloppy Boys discord server. He released an excellent solo EP this year as well as an LP with Jarrett Purdy, both are well worth a listen. He also regularly posts cool guitar covers of whatever songs he feels like on his Instagram and Youtube channel.

De re/De dicto ambiguities and the class struggle

If you follow the news in Ontario, you likely heard that our education workers are demanding an 11.7% wage raise in the current round of bargaining with the provincial government. If, however, you are more actively engaged with this particular story—i.e., you read past the headline, or you read the union’s summary of bargaining proposals—you may have discovered that, actually, the education workers are demanding a flat annual $3.25/hr increase across the board. On the surface, these seem to be two wildly different assertions that can’t both be true. One side must be lying! Strictly speaking, though, neither side is lying, but one side is definitely misinforming.

Consider a version of the headline (1) that supports the government’s line.

(1) Union wants 11.7% raise for Ontario education workers in bargaining proposal.

This sentence is ambiguous. More specifically is shows a de re/de dicto ambiguity. The classic example of such an ambiguity is in (2).

(2) Alex wants to marry a millionaire.

There is one way of interpreting this in which Alex wants to get married and one of his criteria for a spouse is that they be a millionaire. This is the de dicto (lit. “of what is said”) interpretation of (2). The other way of interpreting it is that Alex is deeply in love with a particular person and wants to marry them. It just so happens that Alex’s prospective spouse is a millionaire—a fact which Alex may or may not know. This is the de re (lit. “of the thing”) interpretation of (2). Notice how (2) can describe wildly different realities—for instance, Alex can despise millionaires as a class, but unknowingly want to marry a millionaire.

Turning back to our headline in (1), what are the different readings? The de dicto interpretation is one in which the union representatives sit down at the bargaining table and say something like “We demand an 11.7% raise”. The de re interpretation is one in which the union representatives demanded, say, a flat raise that happens to come out to an 11.7% raise for those workers with the lowest wages when you do the math. The de re interpretation is compatible with the assertions made by the union, so it’s probably the accurate interpretation.

So, (1) is, strictly speaking, not false under one interpretation. It is misinformation, though, because it deliberately introduces a substantive ambiguity in a way that, the alternative headline in (3) does not.

(3) Union wants $3.25/hr raise for Ontario education workers in bargaining proposal

Of course (3) has the de re/de dicto ambiguity—all expressions of desire do—but both interpretations would accurately describe the actual situation. Someone reading the headline (3) would be properly informed regardless of how they interpreted it, while (1) leads some readers to believe a falsehood.

What’s more, I think it’s reasonable to call the headline in (1) deliberate misinformation.

The simplest way to report the union’s bargaining positions would be to simply report it—copy and paste from their official summary. To report the percentage increase as they did, someone had to do the arithmetic to convert absolute terms to relative terms—a simple step, but an extra step nonetheless. Furthermore, to report a single percentage increase, they had to look only at one segment of education workers—the lowest-paid segment. Had they done the calculation on all education workers, they would have come up with a range of percentages, because $3.25 is 11.7% of $27.78, but 8.78% of 37.78, and so on. So, misinforming the public by publishing (1) instead of (3) involved at least two deliberate choices.

It’s worth asking why misinform in this way. A $3.25/hr raise is still substantial and the government could still argue that it’s too high, so why misinform? One reason is that puts workers in the position of explaining that it’s not a bald-faced lie, but it’s misleading, making us seem like pedants. but I think there’s another reason for the government to push the 11.7% figure, it plays into and furthers an anti-union trope that we’re all familiar with.

Bosses always paint organized labour as lazy, greedy, and corrupt—”Union leaders only care about themselves only we bosses care about workers and children.” They especially like to claim that unionized workers, since they enjoy higher wages and better working conditions, don’t care about poor working folks.[1]Indeed there are case in which some union bosses have pursued gains for themselves at the expense of other workers—e.g., construction Unions endorsing the intensely anti-worker Ontario PC Party … Continue reading The $3.25/hr raise demand, however, reveals these tropes as lies.

For various reasons, different jobs, even within a single union, have unequal wages. These inequalities can be used as a wedge to keep workers fighting amongst themselves rather than together against their bosses. Proportional wage increases maintain and entrench those inequalities—if everyone gets a 5% bump, the gap between the top and bottom stays effectively the same. Absolute wage increases, however, shrink those inequalities. Taking the example from above a $37.78/hr worker makes 1.33x the $27.78/hr worker, but after a $3.25/hr raise for both the gap narrow slightly to 1.29x, and continues to do so. So, contrary to the common trope, union actions show solidarity rather than greed.[2]Similar remarks can be made about job actions, which are often taken as proof that workers are inherently lazy. On the contrary, strikes are physically and emotionally grueling and rarely taken on … Continue reading

So what’s the takeaway here? It’s frankly unreasonable to expect ordinary readers to do a formal semantic analysis of their news, though journalists could stand to be a bit less credulous of claims like (1). My takeaway is that this is just more evidence of my personal maxim that people in positions of power lie and mislead whenever it suits them as long as no one questions them. Also, maybe J-schools should have required Linguistics training.


1 Indeed there are case in which some union bosses have pursued gains for themselves at the expense of other workers—e.g., construction Unions endorsing the intensely anti-worker Ontario PC Party because they love building pointless highways and sprawling suburbs
2 Similar remarks can be made about job actions, which are often taken as proof that workers are inherently lazy. On the contrary, strikes are physically and emotionally grueling and rarely taken on lightly

Why are there no Cartesian products in grammar?

This post, I think, doesn’t rise above the level of “musings.” I think there’s something here, but I’m not sure if I can articulate it properly.

An adequate scientific theory is one in which facts about nature are reflected in facts about the theory. Every entity in the theory should have an analogue in nature, relations in the theory should be found in nature, and simple things in the theory should be ubiquitous in nature. This last concern is at the core of minimalist worries about movement—early theories saw movement as complex and had to explain its ubiquity, while later theories see it as simple and have to explain the constraints on it. But my concern here is not minimalist theories of syntax, but model-theoretic semantics.

Model theories of semantics often use set-theory as their formal systems,[1]Yes, I know that there are many other types of model theories put forth so if they are adequate, then ubiquitous semantic phenomena should be simply expressible in set theory, and simple set-theoretic notions should be ubiquitous in semantics. For the most part this seems to be the case—you can do a lot of semantics with membership, subset, intersection, etc.—but obviously it’s not perfect. One point of mismatch is the notion of the Cartesian product (X × Y = {⟨x, y⟩ | xX, yY }) a very straightforward notion in set-theory, but one that does not have a neat analogue in language.

What do I mean by this? Well, consider the set-theoretic statement in (1) and its natural language translation in (2).

(1) P × P ⊆ R

(2) Photographers respect themselves and each other.

What set-theory expresses in a simple statement, language does in a compound one. Or consider (3) and (4) which invert the situation

(3) (P × P) − {⟨p, p⟩ | p ∈ P} ⊆ R

(4) Photographers respect each other.

The natural language expression has gotten simpler at the expense of its set-theoretic translation. This strikes me as a problem.

If natural language semantics is best expressed as set theory (or something similar), why isn’t there a simple bound expression like each-selves with the denotation in (5)?

(5) λX.λY (Y × Y ⊆ X)

What’s more, this doesn’t seem to be a quirk of English. When I first noticed this gap, I asked some native non-English speakers—I got data from Spanish, French (Canadian and Metropolitan), Dutch, Italian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Persian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Hungarian, Kurdish, Tagalog, Western Armenian, and Russian[2]I’d be happy to get more data if you have it. You can email me, put it in the comments, or fill out this brief questionnaire.—and got fairly consistent results. Occasionally there was ambiguity between plural reflexives and reciprocals—French se, for instance, seemed to be ambiguous—but none of the languages had an each-selves.

My suspicion—i.e. my half-formed hypothesis—is that the “meanings” of reflexives and reciprocals are entirely syntactic. We don’t interpret themselves or each other as expressions of set-theory or whatever. Rather, sentences with reflexives and reciprocals are inherently incomplete, and the particular reflexive or reciprocals tells the hearer how to complete it—themselves says “derive a sentence for each member of the subject where that member is also the object”, while each other says “for each member of the subject, derive a set of sentences where each object is one of the other members of the subject.” Setting aside the fact that this, even to me, proposal is mostly nonsense, it still predicts that there should be an each selves. Perhaps making it sensible, would fix this issue, or vice versa. Or maybe it is just nonsense, but plenty of theories started as nonsense.


1 Yes, I know that there are many other types of model theories put forth
2 I’d be happy to get more data if you have it. You can email me, put it in the comments, or fill out this brief questionnaire.

Some good news on the publication front

Today I woke up to an email from the editor of Biolinguistics informing me that my manuscript “A parallel derivation theory of adjuncts” had been accepted for publication. I was quite relieved, especially since I had been expecting some news about my submission for a couple of days—the ability to monitor the progress of submissions on a journal’s website is a decidedly mixed blessing—and there was a definite possibility in my mind that it could have been rejected.

It was also a relief because it’s been a long road with this paper. I first wrote about the kernel of its central idea—that syntactic adjuncts were entirely separate objects from their “hosts”—in my thesis, and I presented it a couple of times within the University of Toronto Linguistics Department a few times. I first realized that it had some legs when it was accepted as a talk at the 2020 LSA Meeting in New Orleans, and I started working on it in earnest in the spring and summer of 2020, submitting the first manuscript version to a different journal in August 2020.

If you follow me on Twitter, you saw my reactions to the peer-review process in real time, but it’s worth summarizing. Versions of this manuscript underwent peer-review at multiple journals and in every case there were one or two constructive reviews—some positive reviews, and some negative reviews that nevertheless pointed out serious but fixable issues—but invariably there was one reviewer who was clearly hostile to the manuscript—there was often sarcasm and vague comments.

I’m sure the manuscript improved over the various submissions, but I believe that the main reason that the paper will finally be published is because the editor of Biolinguistics, Kleanthes Grohmann, recognized and agreed with me that one of the reviewers was being unreasonable, so I definitely owe him my gratitude.

There’s more edits to go, but you can look forward to seeing my paper in Biolinguistics in the near future.

Why are some ideas so sticky? A hypothesis

Anyone who has tried to articulate a new idea or criticize old ones may have noticed that some ideas are washed away relatively easily, while others seem to actively resist even the strongest challenges—some ideas are stickier than others. In some cases, there’s an obvious reason for this stickiness—in some cases there’s even a good reason for it. Some ideas are sticky because they’ve never really been interrogated. Some are sticky because there are powerful parts of society that depend on them. Some are sticky because they’re true, or close to true. But I’ve started to think there’s another reason an idea can be sticky—the amount of mental effort people put into understanding the idea as students.

Take, for instance, X-bar theory. I don’t think there’s some powerful cabal propping it up, it’s not old enough to just be taken for granted, and Chomsky’s Problems of Projection papers showed that it was not really tenable. Yet X-bar persists. Not just in how syntacticians draw trees, or how they informally talk about them, but I remember commentary on my definition of minimal search here involved puzzlement about why I didn’t simply formalize the idea that specifiers were invisible to search followed by more puzzlement when I explained that the notion of specifier was unformulable.

In my experience, the stickiness of X-bar theory—and syntactic projection/labels more broadly—doesn’t manifest itself in an attempt to rebut arguments against it, but in attempts to save it—to reconstitute it in a theory that doesn’t include it.[1]My reading of Zeijstra’s chapter in this volume is as one such attempt This is very strange behaviour—X-bar is a theoretical construct, it’s valid insofar as it is coherent and empirically useful. Why are syntacticians fighting for it? I wondered about this for a while and then I remembered my experience learning X-bar and teaching it—it’s a real challenge. It’s probably the first challenging theoretical construct that syntax students are exposed to. It tends to be presented as a fait accompli, so students just have to learn how it functions. As a result, those students who do manage to figure it out are proud of it and defend it like someone protecting their cherished possessions.[2]I think I may be describing “effort justification,” but I’m basing this just on the Wikipedia article

Of course, it’s a bit dangerous to speculate about the psychological motivations of others, but I’m certain I’ve had this reaction in the past when someone’s challenged an idea that I at one point struggled to learn. And I’ve heard students complain about the fact that every successive level of learning syntax starts with “everything you learned last year is wrong”—or at least that’s the sense they get. So, I have a feeling there’s at least a kernel of truth to my hypothesis. Now, how do I go about testing it?


As I was writing this, I remembered something I frequently think when I’m preparing tests and exams that I’ve thus far only formulated as a somewhat snarky question:

How much of our current linguistic theory depends on how well it lends itself to constructing problem sets and exam questions?


1 My reading of Zeijstra’s chapter in this volume is as one such attempt
2 I think I may be describing “effort justification,” but I’m basing this just on the Wikipedia article

Bad omens for generative syntax

In the last few weeks there have been a couple of posts in the generative linguistics blogosphere that don’t bode well for the field.

The first is the sad announcement from Omer Preminger that he is leaving academia in order to live in the same town as his wife. This news is also rather shocking, since Preminger is a fairly prominent syntactician—someone whose work, though I didn’t always agree with it, had to be addressed seriously—and if a scholar of his prominence and ability can’t negotiate something as reasonable as a spousal hire, what hope does anyone else have in having a life and an academic career too. I’m just a sessional lecturer, so treating me like a robot is still the norm, but to hear that faculty members are also expected to be robots, is disconcerting to be sure.

Omer promises more reflections on his time in academia, which I will read with some interest when it comes out, but I am sorry to see him leaving academia.

The second concerning report comes from Chris Collins. Collins, it seems, applied to some of the same tenured/tenure-track jobs as me this past year, and got the same boilerplate rejection emails as me. That a tenured professor is in the same job market as me is not especially surprising, It should be surprising that no university wanted to hire him, since he not only has a fairly strong empirical program, but he’s made important contributions to syntactic theory—while the idea of label-free syntax is commonly attributed to Chomsky (2013; 2015), he cites Collins for the idea, and slightly more recently, Collins’ work with Ed Stabler formalizing minimalist syntax in a few ways predicted Chomsky’s most recent move to workspace-based MERGE, and on a personal note, has been an invaluable resource to my work.

Collins’ explanation of his unsuccessful applications is twofold and both parts suggest bad trends in generative syntax.

The first explanation is one that I gather is common across all academic fields[1]At least those fields that modern capitalism deems useless.—department budgets are too tight to hire a senior scholar like Collins, when junior candidates are available and cheaper. Collins is probably right on this, but unfortunately commenting on the last war. While it’s probably true that junior hires are preferred over senior hires for budgetary reasons, junior tenure-track faculty are not the floor. Why hire an expensive faculty member who you have to provide with an office, a small research budget, and a pension, when you can hire a few precarious adjuncts for cheaper?

As an aside of sorts, I remember having arguments in grad school with my fellow grad students about whether our department should hire tenured faculty away from other departments. The standing wisdom was that that was the trajectory—smaller departments hired junior faculty, and once they’d proved themselves they’d move on to bigger and better places, opening up a spot at their old place. There was a feeling that, sure, there was no growth in faculty positions, but they were at least going to replace faculty that left or retired. I was skeptical of that line. University administrators had adopted the neoliberal model almost entirely—The Market reigned supreme—and The Market was clear: Linguistics, along with the broader humanities, was useless, so why not take every opportunity to squeeze those useless departments, say, by delaying replacement hires.

All of this is to say that I think Collins has identified a trend, but not a new one. The lower echelons of academia have been enduring this trend for some time now. Perhaps now that it’s reaching the upper echelons, we can see about stopping or reversing it … perhaps.

Collins’ second explanation is that, while he has made valuable contributions in recent years, the field doesn’t appreciate those contributions, and I think he might add the qualifier “yet” to that assessment. Again, I think he’s correct, and he’s identified a trend that I first saw identified by Norbert Hornstein, namely that much of what we call “theoretical syntax” is actually empirical/analytical work. This trend, I think, has morphed first to the point where so-called theoretical syntacticians were puzzled by actual theoretical work, then to the point where they are hostile to it. I suspect Collins has been a victim—though he in no way frames himself as a victim—of this hostility.

So, while there is a decided difference in degree between these two career setbacks, I think they are both part of the same trend, a trend which has been affecting more marginalized and vulnerable parts of academia for some time. The fact that this trend is now directly affecting established generative syntacticians should make the field as a whole take notice. At least I hope it does.


1 At least those fields that modern capitalism deems useless.

On pop-culture and our appetite for complexity

(A slightly edited version of a series of posts on Twitter)

There’s something to this take by Dan O’Sullivan, but I actually think part of the appeal of Marvel movies etc. is that they’re complex. In fact, I think one of the defining characteristics of popular 21st century film/TV is complexity.

A tweet from Dan O’Sullivan (@osullyville)

Lost, Game of Thrones, the MCU, Star Wars, they’re all complicated world-building exercises, and that’s what people love about them. They revel in the web of plot and characters.

It reminds me of an observation that Chomsky made once about sports talk radio:

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

Noam Chomsky: Why Americans Know So Much About Sports But So Little About World Affairs

The people who call in to these shows are not necessarily highly educated, but they’re able to give very sophisticated and well-thought-out analysis of baseball or hockey, or whatever, but ask the average person, even a well-educated person about world affairs, and you’ll get some very shallow platitudes. People are smart. They like understanding complex things. And, more importantly, they like debating and engaging with complexity.

The governing principle of most “democracies,” though is that the political and business bosses do the thinking, and the rest of us should butt out.

Any attempt on our part to engage with, debate, or affect anything that matters is met with ridicule at best and tear-gas, truncheons, or bullets at worst.

So, the MCU didn’t make us dumb. It merely absorbed our natural impulse to engage with complexity, and, in doing so, distracted us from the complexity that really matters.

Coming back to O’Sullivan’s point: With complex works of fiction created by massive corporations, the choice of which aspects are simple and which are complex is up to their creators. So naturally, they’ll make those choices according to their own interests.

Conflict is between individual heroes and villains, and we can identify with or revile them, but certainly not the mass of people threatened by the villains or defended by the heroes.

Video essayist Evan Puschak, AKA The Nerdwriter, gives a similar analysis:

Of course, there’s another question lurking: Don’t the more artsy films serve the same function? Doesn’t SILENCE or THE LIGHTHOUSE just distract us from the real problems too? Maybe, but, if it’s done well, I think not.

I think the key ingredient of fiction that subverts that function is ambiguity. World-building fiction presents a complete closed system. nothing in or out. Ambiguity forces us to actively interpret, and to do so under uncertainty.

To resolve such ambiguity, we have to bring our experience (of the real world) into the fiction, and that necessarily means examining our own experience, to some extent.

It doesn’t give us the tools to understand geopolitics, it gives us the tools to be okay with the ambiguity.

Originally tweeted by Dan Milway (@thrilway) on March 1, 2022.

A Protest

We want our freedom.
Not the fearful freedom
Hurled, an epithet against my neighbour.
Not the freedom to do what I will
Hang the consequences.
Not the freedom of mine vs yours.
But, the broad freedom to be 
With one another again,
To care for each other,
To imagine and make our future
A brighter one together.
The freedom of us.
The freedom denied 
To so many by this plague,
To every prisoner locked away,
To those you'd rather not see.
The freedom that the workers check
Every day to punch the clock.
We demand our freedom
From those that sacrifice the ill
From those that fill the jails
From those that own the clocks
And use their implements to scare
Us into playing their malicious tune.
We need our freedom.
To protect what matters
Each other
Our homes
Our home
We'll take our freedom.

Some idle thoughts on the arguments for semantic externalism/internalism

This semester I’m teaching an intro semantics course for the first time and I decided to use Saeed’s Semantics as a textbook. Its seems like a good textbook; it gives a good survey of all the modern approaches to semantics—internalist, externalist, even so-called cognitive semantics—though the externalist bias is clear if you know what to look for. For instance, the text is quick to bring up the famous externalist thought experiments—Putnam’s robotic cats, Quine’s gavagai, etc—to undercut the internalist approaches, but doesn’t really seem to present the internalist critiques and counterarguments. So, I’ve been striving to correct that in my lectures.

While I was preparing my most recent lecture, something struck me. More precisely, I was suddenly able to put words to something that’s bothered me for a while about the whole debate: The externalist case is strongest for natural kinds, but the internalist case is strongest for human concepts. Putnam talks about cats and water, Kripke talks about tigers and gold, while Katz talks about bachelors and sometimes artifacts. This is not to say that the arguments on either side are unanswerable—Chomsky, I think has provided pretty good arguments that even, for natural kinds, our internal concepts are quite complicated, and there are many thorny issues for internalist approaches too—but they do have slightly different empirical bases, which no doubt inform their approach—if your theory can handle artifact concepts really well, you might be tempted to treat everything that way.

I don’t quite know what to make of this observation yet, but I wanted to write it down before I forgot about it.

There’s also a potential, but maybe half-baked, political implication to this observation. Natural kinds, are more or less constant in that, while they can be tamed and used by humans, we can’t really change them that much, and thinking that you can, say, turn lead into gold would mark you as a bit of a crackpot. Artifacts and social relations, on the other hand, are literally created by free human action. If you view the world with natural kinds at the center, you may be led to the view that the world has its own immutable laws that we can maybe harness, maybe adapt to, but never change.

If, on the other hand, your theory centers artifacts and social relations, then you might be led to the conclusion, as expressed by the late David Graeber, that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”

But, of course, I’m just speculating here.