Topic-fronting with “I know from”

Reading Barbara’s lovely discussion about “how local to go”, I was blindsided by this amazing sentence:

Cornmeal, we know from, but millet — to most Appalachians, that stuff is birdseed.

The “we know from” construction is fairly familiar to me from informal speech and writing. It’s a favorite of Sars. A few examples from her:

  • The man’s baseball childhood was basically the 12 Stations of Richie Ashburn; Philly fans know from having to wait.
  • I have spent time in New Jersey DMVs, so I know from annoying…
  • I don’t know from ESL grammar…
  • Moreover, Giuliani knows from art criticism like I know from sub-nuclear physics. [AG note: awesome]
  • Say what you want about the guy off the field, dude knows from pitching.

I’ve been known to use it myself, although mostly self-consciously, to present a jokingly exaggerated portrait of my knowledge about some area. There are no uses of it in my blogging at all, so I can only suppose that I might say something like “I’m a linguist, so I know from dialects!” It’s a hard construction to search for on Google, because “know from X” is also the first part the standard structure “know from X that Y”, which is why I turned to Tomato Nation for examples.

I don’t really want to get into discussing the “properness” of this structure (some people hate it) or its origin. What really struck me about Barbara’s sentence, though, was the effect of combination with topic-fronting: Instead of saying “We know from X” (X = cornmeal), she writes “X, we know from”. This is just standard topic-fronting, which is a common discourse pattern.

But the combination of the two yields a sentence unusual enough to catch my eye, unusual enough that several people I sent it to said it seemed confusing to them, especially on first reading. Quite an interesting result.

Jesse points out in the comments that a more sophisticated Google search can find some examples, such as:
PS: Your iPod doesn’t know from romance
Barbecue? I know from barbecue…
Since Five I Know From Funny

Vegan WTF coordination

I saw an example in the wild world of vegan blogging today of what Language Log calls WTF coordination (aka syllepsis):

With a dough hook and the mixer running, add remaining flour and knead another 5 minutes.

If this sentence doesn’t strike you as strange, note that “a dough hook” and “the mixer running” are two different types of attachments to “with”, one a straightforward noun and the other a more complex phrase. Perhaps this is another case of recipe-register creating telegraphic constructions that are easy to WTF.

The linked Language Log posts explain the complexities of grammaticality judgment in cases like these. In fact, it’s the toughness of the judgments that gave these their fond name: you’re not a prescriptivist ruling them out on some theoretical grounds. But you hear them and go “WTF, that’s not grammatical”, so you’re not being a pure descripitivist either by assuming that anything anyone produces is grammatical. And then you find it’s hard to explain why some examples sound terrible (like “The sun makes you hot and sneeze”) and others sound okay or even clever.

I rather like this grammatical WTF; it can be elegant or amusing when used well, and I think Country Living magazine (the recipe’s original source) used it well.

Working on a weekend: with wine

I think wine should always accompany weekend work. Loosens up the synapses, and makes one care less that one is not relaxing, because one is relaxed, anyway.

I enjoyed this interesting linguistic slipup:

“Pullum, however, doesn’t really take Gelernter’s argument seriously, presumably because it’s absurd and ignorant and doesn’t deserve to be.”

Parts of this entry, from Peter Seibel, were excerpted on Language Log itself, but they missed this fun little failure of parallelism, probably resulting from editing failure

Pullum doesn’t [take Gelernter’s argument seriously] because it doesn’t deserve to be [take _ seriously].

This works surprisingly well for a sentence whose elided portion is not identical to any earlier constituent. It reminds me of the LL series on cases where a pronoun is introduced that matches an earlier possessive phrase. We sort of fill in the necessary information.

Does justice have anything to do with a disobedient whale?

I can’t resist:

Now consider again Skinner’s sentence:

Justice is not a frivolous thing, Simpson. It has little if anything to do with a disobedient whale.

This seems amenable to a quantificational analysis: the set of situations in which justice has anything to do with a disobedient whale is a subset of the set of situations in which justice has little to do with a disobedient whale. Equivalently, there are no situations in which justice has anything to do with a disobedient whale, in which justice doesn’t have little to do with a disobedient whale.

Earlier today I read one of the weekly emails from my VP and found myself thinking, there are some things that really don’t make a lot of sense without context and sound very strange and funny when presented alone. And I think justice not having anything to do with a disobedient whale is definitely one of them.