Things Not to Write on Your Funding Proposals—Part I—G. Reed, A. Varice, & M. Ammon SpecGram Vol CLXXXVIII, No 1 Contents Glossominoes—Keith Slater & Trey Jones

The SpecGram Linguistic Enhancement of English Project (SLEEP)

As part of SpecGram’s continued commitment to maximising linguistic ‘deliverability’, we are as pleased as punch (and Judy) and as proud as Proudhon (and his children) to announce the creation, formation, staffing, hierarchical bureaucratisation and launch of the SpecGram Linguistic Enhancement of English Project (SLEEP). This brand-new institute, formed with backing from leading financiers of linguistics and the Sicilian Mafia, seeks to maximise efficiency, effectiveness and ease of communication in modern, contemporary and quotidian international English. SLEEP never sleeps, as our new motto goesand here they are with Report Number 1.

Report #1: Plural Marking on Adjectives

SLEEP’s research has demonstrated that sentences of the type ‘She wore a blue cardigan and gloves’ or ‘He visited the beautiful towns and countryside’ are lamentably ambiguous. Vagueness in the scope of the adjectives (respectively blue and beautiful) means that in the first, it may be merely the cardigan which is blue or both the cardigan and the gloves. Our preliminary research showed that 1.3% of native English user respondents and over 78% of non-native users judged the adjective in both sentences to potentially apply to the second nominal. This kind of rabid ambiguity is exactly what SLEEP was set up to seek out and destroy.

Historical records indicate that such ambiguities can cost lives. The battle of Gettysburg, and thereby the Civil War, was lost was when Brigadier General Evander Law said to his adjutant, ‘Give those little soldiers some water and then move on Round Top’. As every American schoolchild would be able to tell you, Law clearly meant ‘move on Little Round Top’ and chose, as any general would, not to waste time restating this lexeme given the time pressures of battle. His adjutant, however, a measly-faced stoat of a man named McWhimber, misunderstood entirely and sent the relevant battalion up Big Round Top, thereby losing the opportunity for the Confederate forces to occupy the intended high ground of Little Round Top and potentially win the day.

Of course, at least one syntactic solution exists to this issue. In our first example above, the speaker might say, ‘She wore gloves and blue cardigan.’ While this removes the ambiguity, safely leaving the interlocutor to understand that the colour of the gloves is unknown or irrelevant, the disadvantage of this strategy is that it places additional cognitive planning load on the speaker, who must adjust the order of the two conjuncts on-line. In line with clause 73(5), paragraph 31x(iv) of SLEEP’s constitution (‘Proposals for English enhancement must not increase on-line processing burdens for speakers by more than a factor of 3’), this strategy has quite rightly been rejected.

In view of the above, SLEEP wishes to make an alternative proposal: to resurrect plural marking on English adjectives. Plural (and other) inflectional markings on adjectives are well attested in prior forms of the language and on historical grounds their reintroduction is therefore entirely reasonable.

In terms of concrete proposals, at this stage, we suggest a pilot project of the morpheme /-s/, modelled of course on the standard plural morpheme which is added lexeme-finally to all adjectives with plural reference and is realised allophonically as [-s], [-z], [-ɪz]. However, to distinguish the new adjectival inflectional morpheme from the established nominal analogue, we propose that it be written <-z>, whilst retaining the allophony in the spoken mode.

This would render the above examples unambiguous in the following way.

    1. She wore a blue cardigan and gloves
      • ⇒ only the cardigan is necessarily blue, the blueness of the gloves is an unknown or an irrelevance
    2. She wore a bluez1 cardigan and gloves
      • ⇒ both the cardigan and gloves are blue
    1. He visited the beautiful towns and countryside
      • ⇒ only the towns are beautiful, not necessarily the countryside; the interlocutor may infer on Gricean principles that the beauty or otherwise of the countryside is unknown or irrelevant
    2. He visited the beautifulz towns and countryside
      • ⇒ both the town and the countryside are beautiful

This proposal, while solid, sensible and intuitive, still leaves certain semantic stones unturned. In the case of 1b, the speaker is unable to clearly encode the state of affairs in which only one glove is blue. In 2b (and in principle 1b), the nature of the beauty of the towns as compared to the countryside may differ, either in aesthetic quality or degree. This remains unencodable in the current system.

We commend this proposal to the SpecGram linguistic oversight committee and to the wider English-using public.

1 The use of <-z> as the orthographic form helps to disambiguate this particular plural adjective from the noun blues as in the form of music. The erroneous interpretation that she was wearing a cardigan and gloves reminiscent or suggestive of the blues musical genre is usefully avoided. The same is true for the adjective ‘green’ as in ‘He had green snot and fingers’ / ‘He had greenz snot and fingers’. Here the interlocutor cannot erroneously interpret the snot and fingers as being vegetable-like.

Things Not to Write on Your Funding ProposalsPart IG. Reed, A. Varice, & M. Ammon
GlossominoesKeith Slater & Trey Jones
SpecGram Vol CLXXXVIII, No 1 Contents