Mystery Linguistics Theater: Episode 1

Note: this was originally posted on, on a blog that no longer exists.  Republished here for posterity, and also because I still think it's kinda funny -- AS

I work in natural language processing and computational linguistics now, but I started off as primarily in Computer Science, which meant that I had to pick up linguistics along the way.  But linguistics is fascinating, so when I find something weird or interesting I want to share it.  Hence, Mystery Linguistics Theater. (And yes, it is a reference to Mystery Science Theater.  One of the best shows ever.)

Episode 1: Who left the verbs out?

A few weeks ago, I got this in an email:


(In case you can’t read it, the important bit is: “Your Textbooks are current.  So should your software”.)

I showed this to a few people, and they all basically did this:


And then they wondered, “How did this happen?  What terrible crime did verbs commit to deserve that?!”

It would be easy to just chalk this up to a case of bad editing, but there’s something more going on here.  Something… syntactic.

This seems to be an example of Verb Phrase (VP) ellipsis gone terribly wrong.  VP ellipsis is what happens when a verb (or an entire verb phrase) is stated once, then left out of subsequent clauses/utterances because it’s already implied.  This happens a lot in English, where the words in parenthesis in the following examples would usually be elided (left out):

  1. I have watched MST3K and my brother has (watched MST3K) also.
  2. She can run a marathon and he can (run a marathon) too.  Can you (run a marathon)?
  3. Did you go to the library, or not (go to the library)?

See? Happens all the time.  But there’s a lot of times that you can’t just delete the second VP as a whole, or else the sentence fails.  Like these:

  1. *I read Hamlet and the class (read Hamlet) too.
  2. *If you go to the movies, will he (go to the movies) too?

Of course, these just need a little finesse:

  1. I read Hamlet and the class did too.
  2. If you go to the movies, will he go too?

So there are some rules about exactly how VP ellipsis works, but I won’t go into them here (the Wikipedia page actually has a nice discussion if you want to know more).  Let’s go back to look at the original ad:

Like nails on a chalkboard, these are the ads of our lives.

Anyway, it’s pretty easy to edit these so that they do make sense:




Actually, I’m not sure if the second example is exactly VP ellipsis on account of how the “should” gets rearranged and “so” gets added, but still.  Both of these are perfectly acceptable ways to get the message across, but neither of them is particularly snappy, right?  And that first one might even need a comma!  There’s no commas in advertising!  So we should just take a line from each version, so it’ll be short and sweet, right?  Yeah!  Let’s do this!

Yeah, not so much.  Let's haiku about it instead:

Ad wants me to buy
VP ellipsis gone wrong
No sale, Microsoft