After my recent blogiversarial lamentations that I’ve strayed away from my original intention of blogging about linguistics and languages and focusing more on politics and indigenous affairs, I feel re-inspired to write about linguistic curios a little more. So here’s a purely matter-of-fact, non-partisan linguistic post.

On the bus this morning, I noticed a sign on the back of the driver’s little compartment, that read something along the lines of:

  • Drinking alcohol is prohibited on this bus
  • Possession of an opened container
    of alcohol is prohibited on this bus

I’ll draw attention to the second point. Note that they don’t merely use an unmarked adjective ‘open’, but a perfect participle construction, a de-verbal adjective ‘opened’. It is of the generalised form verb-en.

The intended meaning is clear: any container that has ever been opened (after being initially sealed, that is), as opposed to merely being temporarily ‘open’ and thus closable, is prohibited. Sydney Buses are clearly precluding any protests from drunken juvenile delinquents claiming that their container of alcohol is not in fact ‘open’, after they’ve quickly re-lidded their bottle of spumante.

‘Open’ is one of those verbs that is so telic that it doesn’t even permit its own inverse: *unopen. This is a purely linguistic constraint though, since it’s perfectly pragmatically acceptable to perform the inverse action of ‘open’, namely, to ‘close’.

I don’t know if there’s a linguisticky term for these verbs, but I’m sure some of my more knowledgeable readers will know at least one.

As a test, these verbs often occur in the construction un-verb-en, but never un-verb. That is, it is possible to describe the state of something that hasn’t undergone the change of state; you can describe something as ‘unopened’, but it is (linguistically) impossible to say you will unopen something (in English at least). However, these verbs often have counterparts; verbs that encode the inverse action, even if the original verb cannot be inversed.

For instance break: it is entirely appropriate to say you broke my arm and the doctor mended/fixed my arm but it is impossible to say *the doctor unbroke my arm. Moreover, break will happily allow unbroken as in unbroken lines (on a road).

Doesn’t everyone think about these things on the bus?

The PM is in trouble. This, we all well know as it’s been covered exhaustively on just about every media outlet for days, but hearing it over and over again makes it no less wonderful.

The country is awash with political commentary right now, so I’m not going to flood the market with any more. However, I will add some linguistic commentary into the mix.

It is common knowledge that for the many years that Howard has been steadily growing older and more stubborn, he has been telling anyone who asks that he will stay in the job as long as he can. Specifically, he says:

    I will stay as long as my party wants me to and it’s in the party’s best interests that I do.

On reading that, you might make the assumption that he will stay only if two necessary conditions are met: that 1. his party wants him to stay and 2. that his staying is in their bests interests. In other words, it normally gets parsed (by me at least) as:

    (I will stay as long as [(my party wants me to) and (it's in the party's best interests that I do)])

Logically speaking then, if either condition isn’t met, if his party do not want want him to stay or his staying is not in their best interests, he should resign as leader of the Liberal party.

However, the intonation doesn’t quite agree with this. I’ve even found the very quote, or at least one instantiation thereof – remember he’s said it that many times – and I’ve extracted the important bit, using WordPress’s nifty mp3 embedding tool (failing that you can download the mp3 from here, it’s only 30KB!):


Notice the intonation? He didn’t say he’d stay as long as it is in the party’s best interests, he said that his staying is in the party’s best interests. He (possibly) intended it to parse as:

    [I will stay as long as my party wants me to] and [it's in the party's best interests that I do]

At the moment it is certainly not in his party’s interest that he stays; he’s a liability. But he won’t go of course, because, under this interpretation at least, he never said he would. He only said he’d go if the party want him to. The fact that his staying is in the best interests of the party is asserted.

It’s just like interests rates. “We will keep interest rates lower” they said. The moment they went up, Howard turns around and said “when I said lower, I meant lower than they would have been had Labor been elected instead” which is of course, absolutely untestable.

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