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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

Studies Out in Left Field: Defamatory Essays Presented to James D. McCawley on His 33rd or 34th Birthday

Studies Out in Left Field: Defamatory Essays Presented to James D. McCawley on His 33rd or 34th Birthday. Reprint of the Original Edition - Arnold M. Zwicky Dong-Style Treatment Of Friggatives In A Speech-Enabled Internet Game

In a famous paper, Jorge Hankamer persuasively argued that there are two than's in English (Hankamer 1975). Here, we will follow the seminal work of the late Quang Phuc Dong of the University of Hanoi, and take the position that English also contains two fuck's (Dong, 1971). As Dong points out, sentences like

(1) Fuck Lyndon Johnson.

are systematically ambiguous between two readings: one of them is an exhortation to have sexual intercourse, while the other is a statement of strong disapprobation. Dong claims that this ambiguity is best accounted for by positing the existence of two homophonous verbs, which he calls fuck1 and fuck2; fuck1 is associated with the first meaning, and fuck2 with the second. It is to be noted that the two verbs have quite different distributions. Fuck1 can take adverbial modifiers and be embedded in a wide variety of sentential contexts, whereas fuck2 cannot. Thus, as Dong points out, sentences like (2)-(7) are unambiguous, and can only be read as referring to fuck1.

(2) Fuck Lyndon Johnson on Tuesday.
(3) Fuck Lyndon Johnson in the bathroom.
(4) Fuck Lyndon Johnson up the ass.
(5) Don't fuck Lyndon Johnson.
(6) I want you to fuck Lyndon Johnson.
(7) Fuck Lyndon Johnson or I will take away your teddy bear.

The unusual distribution of fuck2 led Dong and his colleagues to consider the hypothesis that, despite surface appearances and etymology, it is not a verb at all, and belongs to a different syntactic class. We will adopt their useful term friggative to refer to fuck2 and similar words. In particular, "fucking" is often best treated as an inflected form of fuck2. For example, the sentence

(8) Lyndon Johnson is a fucking Yankee imperialist.

in no way claims that Lyndon Johnson currently or habitually engages in sexual intercourse.

Our main purpose here is to suggest that Dong's analysis of friggatives, far from being a linguistic curiosity, is of considerable practical interest in the context of Artificial Intelligence and speech understanding. In the recently deployed Internet game "Minion Dominion" (Oddcast, 2010), which the author of this note helped develop, users give spoken commands to a pair of animated figures ("Minions"), who then attempt to carry them out. Since the target demographic is centered on teenage boys, we anticipated heavy use of sexual words. The Minions, whose expressed personalities are innocent and child-like, are not capable of any kind of sexual behaviour. Thus an appropriate response to commands like (9)-(11)

(9) Fuck your buddy.
(10) Have oral sex with the other minion.
(11) I want you to go down on him.

is for the Minions to put their hands over their mouths and shriek. In contrast, modern American usage of friggatives often assigns them the role of intensifiers or pronouns; so in sentences like (12)-(14)

(12) Do the fucking moonwalk.
(13) Zap him with the fucking shrink ray.
(14) Kick the motherfucker in the pants.

an appropriate response is to execute the suggested command.

It is apparent, even after consideration of this small set of examples, that a naive keyword-based treatment of sexual expressions is unlikely to be successful; it will incorrectly reject sentences like (12)-(14), but also allow sentences like (11), which contain no overtly sexual word. A Dong-style analysis, which considers the deep semantic structure of the sentence and implements the sexual/friggative distinction, is far better adapted to the requirements of the task, and has been incorporated in the current system.

In a later paper, we will present quantitative results on user data to compare the relative efficiency of the naive and Dong-style approaches.


Hankamer, Jorge. 1975. "Why There Are Two Than's In English". In Proceedings of the Ninth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistics Society.

Dong, Quang Phuc. 1971. "English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject". In Zwicky, A.M. et al (eds.) Studies Out In Left Field, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Philadephia.

Oddcast. 2010. "Minion Dominion". Internet game. http://www.miniondominion.com