“one step ahead of the Wangses”

Yes, another linguistics post.

Yesterday on The Economist’s Gulliver blog:

the status of being able to afford to go abroad, ensuring you keep one step ahead of the Wangses, may be a factor

This is almost certainly wrong ungrammatical. Our writer M.D. bases this turn of phrase on the idiom keep up with the Joneses. But in that usual one, we get an -ses because the surname is Jones. Since we can’t have Joness—because by English rules it would be pronounced /dʒoʊ’nɛs/, which really wouldn’t do—we change the -s prefix to -es, giving us the Joneses.

But the Chinese surname is Wang! There’s no word-final -s. The family with the last name Wang are the Wangs.

Lest I be accused of pedantry or prescriptivism here, allow me to note that “keep up with the Wangses” has merely 21 Google hits (although this number will probably rise when Googlebot sees this post), and that’s with “omitted results included”. “Keep up with the Wangs” on the other hand has 54,900 Google hits, and in the top few are a Wall Street Journal blog, an article in The Telegraph, a New York Times article (from 1993, no less), and a paper by a Princeton economics professor.

Request for grammaticality judgment

A quote from my Linguistics 100 lecture notes from April 14, 2014: “(graduate) syntax courses often filled with acrimonious arguments re: grammaticality”. Fellow linguistics students know what I mean.

The first rule of grammaticality judgments is to never trust your own. Therefore:

xkcd — the brilliant webcomic beloved by millions of readers every week — creator Randall Munroe delivers hilarious and informative answers to questions you probably never thought to ask. It’s time to meet your hero.

The above paragraph comes from promotional material for an appearance Randall Munroe is making in Berkeley on September 12. My question is thus: is that em-dash parenthetical permitted?

My own intuition says that you can’t split up an NP like xkcd creator that way.

English possessive -‘s as a clitic

A lot of linguistics-related posts recently…. this one will be short.

This is the title of the current top post on reddit’s front page (or mine, anyway):

Over a year ago I paid for the family in front of me’s groceries without thinking much of it. Today, I got this in the mail.

That’s a whole lot of separation between the head noun and the possessive marker.

(Stuff like this is why the possessive -‘s is considered a clitic rather than a case marker.1)

“more than I never expected”

TODAY in misnegations, we have “more than I never expected“.

The correct term is of course “more than I ever expected”. The cause of the misnegation is clear: the phrase represents something not expected, but oddly the negation is implicit in the word more, and so the negation rules of Standard English (which do not feature “negative concord“) do not accept a negation on ever or expected. As Geoffrey Pullum is fond of saying, our primate brains are sometimes simply not capable of handling such subtle intricacies.

A Google search for “more * than I never expected” returns 1,460,000 results. Most of these are not examples of this error though, as the wildcard went across a sentence boundary, matching grammatical passages where a sentence began with “I never expected” after a sentence ending with “more than *”. Google Search ignores punctuation entirely, so I don’t know of any way to refine the search further. The top few actual examples:

came away feeling they were more fearful of my experience than I never expected.

That’s something that’s inherently more fulfilling than I never expected when I started.

The third day I applied it was more longer and thicker than I never expected.

made me cry so badly more worse than i never expected.

The one I found that inspired this post: “a lot more to the PNG file format than I never expected” (myers.io).

Unexpectedly gender-neutral words

dude: the OED has citations for the old male-only form of dude dating back to 1918 (!); its earliest citation for a gender-neutral dude is a 1974 description of campus slang at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (A later one is the 1995 comedy film Clueless.)

This can get awkward because dude is in fact quite frequently used (in nominative form) to refer specifically to males.

man: the gender neutrality of the usual noun man/Man can be possibly disputed, but in this case I mean the vocative form. OED’s entries (IV) 16 (a) and (b), specifically. 16aUsed to address a person (usually a man, but sometimes a woman or child) emphatically to indicate contempt, impatience, exhortation, etc. 16b: […] Also […] among African-Americans. Used to address a person (in many varieties of English, irrespective of sex) parenthetically without emphasis to indicate familiarity, amicability, or equality between the speaker and the person addressed. Now sometimes with loss of vocative force.

you guys: the standard third person plural vocative form of address (completely irrespective of the gender makeup of the group) in several English dialects, including that of the Bay Area (although some at UC Berkeley seem to insist on the foreign y’all, perhaps due to the perceived unfairness of referring to a mixed-gender group with guys). Whether guys itself can be gender-neutral is debatable; it can certainly be used in ways that are unambiguously male only (“guys and girls“). There is also the spurious debate as to whether it should be gender neutral, a debate that, for example, he has roundly lost. (The OED has excellent coverage of this.)

Singular guy I think it is safe to call strictly male only.

girl: (in the vocative; occasionally written gurl, or even qurl; see the Cognoīntellectualist’s Dictionary) OK I’m sort of joking about this one. I once heard it used by a girl talking to a guy (in place of the more standard “Dude… ” or the more vulgar “Bitch…“). She realized it was an unacceptable* usage, apologized, and continued using it anyway. Perhaps it will catch on.
*in the grammatical sense, not in any moral sense

fanboy: Unfortunately in this instance the OED, American Heritage Dictionary, and Merriam Webster all have this one wrong, as they all specifically limit fanboy to males, perhaps in a mistaken belief that a female fanboy must be referred to as a fangirl, a word which also appears in all three (and is not gender-neutral).

Urban Dictionary, interestingly, does have this one correct*, as none of the entries for fanboy mention any restriction to males. (Then again, “there are no girls on the internet”1.) Fangirl is explicitly limited to females.
*This situation is surprisingly common for recent-ish colloquial usages.

My only actual citation for this is the short self-bio given by Michele Titolo in reddit’s announcement of her hiring (along with several others), where she describes herself as “reddit’s new Certified Apple Fanboy™…er iOS Software Engineer“. (As a sidenote, I had to look her up to ensure that she was actually female, as Wikipedia warns that Michele is a male given name in Italian. Although I suppose the mention of /r/TrollXChromosomes was a giveaway.)


There are undoubtedly many more.