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You might have noticed that I’m on a bit of hiatus this month. I’m working on my dissertation and preparing applications for post-grad-school jobs, but luckily something I’d done a little while ago has come through the pipeline for me to share.

Back in June, I presented a portion of my dissertation research at the NAACL-HLT conference, but all I had at the time was a computationally-dense paper to show you.  Well, the conference has uploaded videos of all the presentations, so if you’re interested in what I actually do academically, you can find out.  In short, this portion of my research is about the improvements in word segmentation that happen when you combine multiple types of information instead of using a single type.  It’s a computational model of how infants could use additional information to learn words better, as well as learning the likely stress patterns for words in the language they’re learning.

The video [20 min, plus questions that are unfortunately hard to hear]

I tried to make the talk approachable to the non-specialist, so take a gander if you want to see some of my dissertation research (which, of course, is pretty far afield from the discussions on this blog).  There will be math, too, in case you are a specialist, and if you want the whole story, you can see the paper that accompanies the talk.

In other news, I’ll be giving a talk on some of my new research showing how Twitter can be used to map the range of dialectal syntactic variants (e.g., double modals like might could and the needs done construction) at the LSA annual meeting in Minneapolis on January 3.  Check out the abstract here, and maybe I’ll see you there!

If you haven’t already heard, Texas’s state senate was engaged in a political thriller last night. I was able to catch the last 40 or so minutes of its livestream, riding that delightful roller-coaster of modern politics that trundles from dim optimism that something good will happen to the crushing realization that the deck has been stacked against it so thoroughly that you can only hope to minimize your losses.

Well, thankfully, there was a substantial group of state senators who managed to lack such pessimism and who stood up to do right by their constituents. Literally, in the case of Sen. Wendy Davis, who began a filibuster of an anti-abortion bill 13 hours before the special session was set to end at midnight. By rule, she had to keep talking throughout, stopping only to take questions. She was not allowed to sit, lean against a desk, leave the floor, or eat. None of this “silent” filibuster garbage of the federal senate: no, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, wreck-your-body-because-you-believe-in-what’s-right dedication.

What I hope becomes an iconic picture of this event.

Sen. Tommy Williams couldn’t have looked more like a political caricature while arguing for a second strike against Davis’s filibuster because another member helped her adjust her back brace. [Photo: Patrick Michels, Texas Observer]

Davis made it ten hours before getting three strikes on her filibuster. Other senators took over, stalling until 11:45, when the Republican majority managed to trigger a vote to trigger a vote on the contemptible SB 5. With this first vote passed and the bill’s passage imminent, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte challenged the first vote on the basis of her having an outstanding inquiry at the time of the vote, a challenge the Senate president overruled by noting that he had not recognized her inquiry.

With calm fury reminiscent of Joe Welch, she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” The gallery erupted in cheers that continued for the last fifteen minutes of the day, a cacophony that prevented the final roll-call vote from happening until after the midnight deadline. It was powerful stuff, and my eyes welled more than once throughout it.

But this is a grammar blog, and I wouldn’t bring this up unless there was a grammatical discussion to be had. Let’s go back to the second of the three strikes against Davis’s filibuster, the objection I’ve included Patrick Michels’s excellent picture of above. Claire Cardona wrote at the Dallas Morning News’s filibuster liveblog:

“Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order on the filibuster because Davis had help from Sen. Ellis to readjust her back brace. [...] but Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, brings up a part in the rules that would permit Davis to sit. [...] Zaffirini notes that the rules said ‘may not lean on his desk, his chair, and that note doesnt apply to Sen. Davis.'”

The rule in question, which I think is Senate Rule 4.01 [PDF, p. 8-9], reads:

“When a member has been recognized and is speaking on a motion to re-refer a bill, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean thereon (61 S.J. Reg. 1760, 1762 (1969)).
When a member has the floor and is speaking on a bill or resolution, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean or sit on his desk or chair (61 S.J. Reg. 1059 (1969)).”

Of course, we all know what is meant there, that the intended interpretation is gender-neutral he. We see such usages regularly, probably think little of it, and move on. To claim that the use of he in this rule means it doesn’t apply to a woman is crazy, surely.

Or is it? During a filibuster, pedantry is everywhere. I learned but one thing from the time I volunteered at a Model Congress convention: intent and common usage mean little as the parliamentarian sifts through Robert’s Rules of Order to decide which of the fourteen simultaneous objections takes precedence over the rest. Grammatical pedantry, so often out of place, is only fair in this situation.

[Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and guests unveiling a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case]

The Canadian “Persons Case”, in which women were suing to be granted the right to be appointed to the Senate, depended in part on whether he included women. The legal gender-neutrality of he had in fact been specified in 1889’s Interpretation Act.

I’m no legal expert, and I’m certainly not an expert at what terminological choices are taken as given in the Texas Senate rulebook, so take this discussion with a grain of salt. But Zaffirini’s argument isn’t without merit. I found no declaration at any point in the Senate Rules that he is to be assumed as gender-neutral. In fact, there are eight instances of “his or her” in the rules — one occurring in the first sentence of Rule 4.01, the very rule being debated. If he is understood to be gender-neutral in the third and fourth sentences of Rule 4.01, why is he insufficient in the first?*

I wrote last year about how such uncertainty of the interpretation of gender-neutrality on the male pronoun in governmental settings was not a new concern: even the first U.S. Congress, in 1790, used “he or she” in some of their bills. It’s all hair-splitting, of course, but it’s a hair that may need to be split. When the issue at hand is so entwined with gender, maybe it’s a good time to examine our assumptions, starting with a little pronoun.

*: Possibly because the third and fourth sentences are based on 1969 formulations and the first sentence isn’t. But are Senate rules to be interpreted diachronically or synchronically?

You may have noticed that I’ve been being quite bad about updating the blog the last couple months. I’m sorry for my negligence, and I’m hoping summer will leave me with a bit more time to keep up the blog. But the reason I’ve been remiss is that it’s time to really batten down the dissertation hatches, and boy, that doesn’t leave the time or energy for much else.

Tomorrow morning, the battening of said hatches pays off a little bit, because I’ll be presenting a portion of my dissertation research at the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics (NAACL)’s conference. I don’t imagine too many of you are attending the conference, but if you are, I’ll be presenting in Session C tomorrow (i.e., Monday) morning at 11:55, so swing on by.

If you’re not down here in balmy Atlanta, you can always read the paper in the comfort of wherever you are. It looks at how an infant learning a language can combine syllable identities and stress patterns to segment words within the language they’re learning. I’ll warn you, it’s a lot less accessible than the stuff I write here, but it’s the actual computational psycholinguistic research that I earn my keep with, so I hope you’ll give it a look if you’re interested in such things.

I’ve been meaning to set up some sort of occasional round-up of interesting pieces on the rest of the Internet, and with the new year, there’s no better time to start.  I’ll be posting these (hopefully consistently) every other Friday, starting today. This edition is going to go a bit outside the past 14 days; I hope this doesn’t sour you to it.

A couple links with commentary:

* Jonathon Owen’s post on relative pronouns and the silly proscriptions they engender is really darn good, and having been posted on Christmas Eve, it would have made a great present, if only I’d seen it then.  This part I’m quoting isn’t even my favorite part, that’s how good it is:

If you think the system doesn’t make sense, the solution isn’t to try to hammer it into something that does make sense; the solution is to figure out what kind of sense it makes.

* This isn’t exactly language-related, but here’s a post from Christopher Simmons on the University of California’s scrapped new logo & brand identity. The core point of the article is the debate about to what extent knowledge of the underlying purpose or process is necessary in order to fairly critique the outcome. In the case of the logo, was it fair to hate it without knowing exactly how it was used, how the designers presented it, and what the University asked the designers for?

I see a parallel here with language; we often wonder when it’s fair to critique someone’s usage, and to what extent one must know their background or dialect. I disagree with many of Simmons’s points; logo design is more about the impression it makes than the intent behind it, so it seems to me that a reaction like “I don’t like it” must be taken into account — just as I must occasionally swallow my pride and write “needs to be done” instead of “needs done” in formal writing, even though I can fully justify the usage. But I like his thoughts on valid and invalid, helpful and unhelpful, and justified and unjustified complaints. (Full disclosure: I thought that the new logo & identity were a poor choice, especially compared to the semi-traditional identity that they were intended to replace.)

* Also a bit afield from the usual here, but John McIntyre wrote yesterday that (journalistic) editors are supposed to provide skepticism at least as much as they provide story improvements. I was a little embarrassed, having finished the piece, that I’d never thought of such seemingly obvious points — the true sign of a good and well-needed discussion. We too readily bemoan the loss of editing in contemporary publishing when we see errors that don’t matter (like a headline I’ve seen for three straight days on a website, confusing “effect” for “affect”), but we miss out on the really crucial losses — the fact-checking and oversight of the information we receive.

A couple without:

* Johnson (Lane Greene) on singular they (and a follow-up on singular/plural you.

* Geoff Nunberg on big data misinterpreted as a plural.

* Be a online DARE beta tester! (via Mr. Verb)

* Ben Zimmer recounts the ADS word-of-the-year voting.

A picture to close it out:

The view as I (and my allergies) escaped the two dogs & three cats at my grandmother's Christmas gathering.

The view as I (and my allergies) escaped the two dogs & three cats at my grandmother’s Christmas gathering.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.

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