London signage 02: Dummy “it” in non-parallel construction.

Deuxième partie de notre série sur les panneaux londoniens. Celui-ci pose un problème de syntaxe.

For our second instalment let’s turn our attention to a bit of syntax. This sign adorns a narrow footpath from Charing Cross train station down to the river Thames:


If we give the first sentence its final punctuation back and try to group together what goes together, we get, on the surface, this:

  • [It [is an offence [to ride a cycle [on the footway]]] and [is punishable [by a £30 fine]]].

Now I know I have a high tolerance for non-parallel constructions in English, but this one bugs me. The culprit? The first and the second instance of “it” aren’t the same: in the first half of the sentence, it is a dummy subject; the only reason it’s there at all is because the sentence needs a subject, however perfunctory. there’s another way of saying the same thing, using the Vb+ing form: Riding a cycle on the footway is an offence. On the other hand, the (virtual) it in it is punishable by a £30 fine replaces the entire referential subject of the first half, riding a cycle on the footway.

But if we pull that part out and front it, the sentence’s okay for me: Riding a cycle on the footway is an offence and punishable by a £30 fine. Weird.

(On Flickr and IRC, the discussion about the grammaticality of the sentence got sidetracked into a) whether cycle is the appropriate word (it is indeed the legal term) and b) whether it makes sense to restrict cycling (in this particular place — a narrow walkway filled with foreign teenagers in London for the first time — I’d say it’s defensible, though the Met’s priorities should lie elsewhere).

[The spell-checker didn’t know: footway.]

Moins dérangeants politiquement pingouins

A question about French modifier ordering.

Juste une petite question aux francophones, déclenchée par une phrase dans Libération d’aujourd’hui :

  • Ce n’est pas le documentaire sur les méfaits des hommes d’Enron qui gagne l’Oscar mais les moins dérangeants politiquement pingouins français («La Marche de l’empereur»).

L’ordre des adjectifs et autres adjoints du nom, cela n’a rien de dérangeant pour vous ? Si oui, la section des commentaires serait ravie d’accueillir vos améliorations.

P.S.: C’est quoi la différence entre une congratulation et une félicitation ?

  • Après toute les félicitations, congratulations et les habituels remerciements émus, la statuette dorée à la main – à ses parents, mais aussi à son agent, à son manager, et même son avocat…– la communauté hollywoodienne est remontée dans sa longue file de limousines, poursuivie par une flottille d’hélicoptères des télévisions, pour aller fêter cette très belle soirée.

(On ferme les yeux sur l’erreur d’accord — je n’ai pas le droit de râler contre cela, vu que j’en fais des masses. Ceci dit, je n’ai pas de correcteur qui relit ce que j’écris, et le français n’est que ma cinquième langue par l’ordre d’apprentissage, et troisième par la confiance dans mon expression écrite…)

Confusing hedges

… ou : comment (ne pas) atténuer ses propos. Là où on emploie le conditionnel en français, l’anglais a des adverbes à sa disposition. On appelle cela un hedge. Mais parfois, signaler qu’il y a un doute sur ce qui est affirmé peut embrouiller la syntaxe.

  • 2006-02-17
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Imagine A (male) shot and killed B. In addition, some days earlier, A tried to pull off an Internet scam. This situation could be bundled into one sentence like this:

  • A tried to pull off an Internet scam just days before he shot and killed B.

But as long as A isn’t convicted and sentenced, the press aren’t supposed to employ this sort of plain language. Which is entirely proper, given that the journalists are unlikely to have been eyewitnesses of the sad events. In come the hedges. At Newsforge, the result is:

  • Suspected murderer Neil Entwistle was trying to sell on auction Web site eBay just days before he allegedly shot and killed his wife and infant child.#[1]

This sentence, however, throws my logic module into a loop. The words suspected and allegedly point to Mr Entwistle’s potential innocence. But if he is innocent, he tricked (shouldn’t there be an “allegedly” here, too?) people into buying free software just days before he — did nothing else in particular. The reader is being left hanging out in the air.

It’s got something to do with allegedly functioning as a sentence adverb. Its scope extends beyond just the verb shot (you don’t “allegedly shoot” someone) . The last part of the sentence means “it has been alleged that + [Subject] + [Predicate]”. And the alleging itself took place long (not “just”) after he made questionable use of eBay, if that’s what he did.

A possible way out of the confusion would have been to pack the entire allegation bit into the first part of the sentence: N. E., who is suspected of shooting his wife and infant child, was trying to sell … just days before the killing took place.

French goes about hedges differently. There are adverbs, of course, but most importantly, the verb is changed to the conditional#[2]. But it is quite impossible to translate the Newsforge writer’s construction very closely: avant que (before, if followed by a finite verb) forces you to employ the subjunctive mood, and your verb forms go haywire. Nominalising the verb won’t help: “avant d’avoir tué” has no trace of a hedge. But you can replace it with a noun. The press would definitely use the conditional for try to sell … on eBay as well and probably come up with something along the lines of Accusé du meurtre de son épouse et de leur enfant, N. E. aurait essayé de vendre… juste quelques jours avant la tuerie.

[Spell-check didn’t know: nominalising (huh — but it’s a new installation; suggestion: criminalising); anarthrous (suggestion: arthrograms).]

Notes: [1]: Note the two anarthrous noun phrases. [2]: In the French-speaking world, entire mailing lists have gone up in flame-wars over the question whether the conditionnel is a tense or a mood. Naively, I’d have opted for “mood” without batting an eye, but some syntactic uses of the conditional do indeed complicated matters slightly.

Today’s interminable NPs

Il devrait y avoir une limite supérieure pour les syntagmes nominaux. En voilà deux en anglais, à ne pas imiter.

  • 2005-10-02
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Here are two really-much-too-long-drawn-out noun phrases I found in today’s idle browsing. The first one is from an AP wire (emphasis mine): An independent commission to oversee coastal restoration and hurricane protection work in Louisiana has been proposed by the Louisiana congressional delegation. It would be called the “Protecting Essential Louisiana Infrastructure, Citizens and […]

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A relative clause there’ll have to be some thinking over

Des problèmes avec une phrase relative en anglais.

So I was reading about the sad and horrifying loyalist#[1] riots that took place in Belfast over the weekend. Until I stumbled over a sentence, a quote of Ian Paisley. In the Guardian, the construction that puzzled me looks like this (emphasis mine): Then tension hit a higher notch when Ian Paisley, the now undisputed leader of […]

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Garden paths

Les chemins du jardin qui mènent dans la brousse. Syntaxiquement parlant.

Microsoft debuts a malicious software removal tool today. (link) — Just glad I don’t have any Microsoft software on my computer any more. I might inadvertently install the malicious tool. Powell Surveys Devastated Area — A headline quoted from memory, from, I think, USA Today (which would have been USA Yesterday, or rather USA The-Previous-Day), which […]

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