Monday, October 27, 2008

Going potty

Potty has a number of meanings, but here I'm interested in what the OED lists as sense #2
"colloq. (chiefly N. Amer.; usu. euphem. or in children's language). to go potty: (esp. of children or animals) to urinate or defecate; to use the toilet or potty."
My son was reading aloud from Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Jurassic Jackrabbits from Jupiter, when one of the characters said she had to "go potty". "What," I wondered, "is potty?" If a child has to go pee, pee is a verb, just like see in I have to go see her. But potty certainly isn't a verb. You can't say, "I pottied," or "I'm pottying."

A potty is a chamber pot, and by extension a toilet, and that would make it a noun, except that you can't typically just stick a noun after go like that. I mean, as far as I know, we don't have people going school, work, house, way, war, or even bed (though they can go this way or that).

Then I remembered an episode of an ABC Radio program called Lingua Franca, which featured Geoff Pullum. In said episode, Geoff discusses his realisation that a common noun is sometimes a preposition.
"I discovered it on the lower slopes of Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane, one glorious day in the Botannical Gardens. The eastern water dragons were out sunning themselves near the rainforest section, a brass band was doing a free concert, and a few scrub turkeys were out, wandering around. I stopped near the bandstand to read a plaque that described the lifestyle of this bird, the scrub turkey, which is rather odd. Female scrub turkeys are fast-lane chicks, promiscuous loners who don't care for raising the young, and they wander through the forest and have sex with any male they meet who seems attractive, and then they lay a few eggs for him and move on. The male does all the child-rearing. He builds a huge compost heap to keeps the eggs warm, he regulates the size of the compost heap to keep the eggs at just the right temperature until the time comes for the chicks to hatch. And what happens then is described on the plaque with the following sentence, which had me whipping out the notebook immediately:

'On hatching, the chicks scramble to the surface and head bush on their own.'

Do you see it? Do you see the new preposition? The clue lies in that verb, 'head'. You see, there are verbs that absolutely have to be used with a preposition. The verb 'put', for example, can only be used with a locative preposition. You can say 'Put the milk in the fridge', but you can't say, 'Put the milk', because without a preposition after 'put' you've got nothing but nonsense.

Well the verb 'head' can only be used with a directional preposition. You can say, 'He headed into town', but you can't say, 'He headed'. Without a phrase like 'into town' or 'towards the wall' or 'away from the house', you can't use that verb sensibly at all. So what follows 'head' simply has to be a preposition.

And there it is! 'They head bush on their own.' 'Bush' is a preposition. Sure, it used to be a noun, just like 'home'. But a long time ago 'home' took on a second job as a directional preposition. That's why you can say 'He headed home'. And in Australian English, it seems, you can say, 'He headed bush', and it means 'He headed for rural Australia.'

Now, I'm not sure if you can head potty or not, but I found the following advice about toilet training:

"Talk about it all the time. Make it fun, something to look forward to. But without pressure. I'd say something as I was heading potty to my girls and leave it at that. If she followed me in, I'd ask if she wanted to sit too."

So, could it be that potty is a preposition here?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Happy quarter millenium Mr. Webster

Noah Webster would have been 250 years old yesterday. Webster is the American lexicographer behind what is now Merriam-Webster's dictionaries. Coincidentally, that company has a new learner's dictionary on the market. I haven't had a chance to have a good look at it, but there's also a free online edition which you can try out yourself.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

If Murphy would have asked Dion a reasonable question

St├ęphane Dion’s interview with CTV anchor Steve Murphy has been getting a lot of play here. According to The Star's Tonda MacCharles "Dion struggles to understand the question's conditional subjunctive tense, before attempting to answer, stumbling as he describes his 30-day, five-point plan for post-election consultations." Leaving aside MacCharles's confounding of tense and mood, I think she's wrong. Dion's confusion shows that he grasped the question perfectly. It's Murphy who had no idea what he was asking about. Here's the transcript:
CTV: Mr. Dion, the economy is now the issue on the campaign, and on that issue you've said that today that Harper has done nothing to put Canadians' mind at ease and offers no vision for the country. You have to act now, you say; doing nothing is not an option. If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done.

SD: If I had been prime minister two-and-a-half years ago?

CTV: If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years.

SD: If I am elected next Tuesday, this Tuesday, it's what you are suggesting?

CTV: No, I am saying if you were hypothetically prime minister today ...

SD: Today.

CTV: ... What would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?


Murphy begins with a counterfactual condition: "If you were Prime Minister..." At this point, the time reference of the question is perfectly ambiguous; because the form of were is used to indicate counterfactuality rather than time reference, but Murphy clears that up with his next word: now. At this point, the hypothetical setting is established and the hypothetical question begins; Murphy asks, "...what would you..." Again, we have a verb would which is a past-tense form, but which is indicating counterfactuality rather than past time. But then Murphy clearly locates the question in the past time by using the present perfect aspect "...have done...".

To recap, Murphy had the following options:

  1. what are you doing (no hypothetical, present time)
  2. what did you do (no hypothetical, past time)
  3. what would you do (hypothetical, present or future time)
  4. what would you have done (hypothetical, past time)
He chose #4. So Dion is hypothethically Prime Minister, and Murphy wants to know the steps that Prime Minister Dion took prior to the day of the interview in this imagined universe.

Of course, in imagination land, anything can happen, but it is reasonable to expect that apart from Dion being PM, other things, such as the dates of elections, have not changed. If Dion is Prime Minister at the time in question, then it is most likely because he was elected two years earlier. This is exactly what Dion takes the question to mean.

But Murphy denies this interpretation. He wants to know, "If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years." In other words, in his fantasy, Dion has suddenly become Prime Minister. But if the query is about Dion's prior actions, his sudden hypothetical PMship becomes irrelevant.

Unfortunately, because of Dion's status as a non-native speaker of English and Murphy's status as a native speaker, Murphy gets a free ride and Dion is said not to understand. Here, however, it is clearly Murphy who needs the English lesson, or at least a lesson in logic.