Thursday, September 15, 2005

A linguistic puzzle

I gave my students the assignment of find Google search strings with one asterisk (like '"the * ran"') that would catch results where all the words in the wild card slot were of the same part of speech. So for example, many students used something like '"the * ran"' for catching nouns. (There is a wrinkle that recently Google changed how they interpret the asterisk, so that now it can match more than one word. Please ignore those results.)

Well, one student came up with the pattern '"he talked *"' for catching adverbs. Now, of course that slot could be filled with an adverb, but always? or even most often? I had expected 'about' or 'with' to show up most, but if you look at the results, in nearly all the results, you do indeed get an adverb in the wildcard slot, and 'about' comes right after. What gives? Why do people so consistently slip an adverb between 'talked' and 'about'?

I'm baffled.

8 comments:

serapio said...

Okay, I figured it out. I will leave you in suspense though. It will be an exercise for the reader.

The girl in the red hat said...

Well, just tell say because I have a life here and I can't waste time thinking about things that 1. I am not paid to think about. or 2. Do not infulence my grades. or 3. Do not have a punchline

Mr. Carroll said...

No doubt, this is evidense of massive passive/aggressive response to Elmore Leonard's ten rules of good writing. The original seems no longer to be posted, but I found this summary.

Mr. Carroll said...

In the name of science, I wondered what would pop up if I searched for adverbs modifying "said", using the formula: "said *ly" The first responce on the list came from Charles Dickens: 'I'm not afraid in this way,' said little Em'ly. Take that, Elmore Leonard!

serapio said...

In the interest of science I did a search in the BNC for the words most likely to follow 'said'. The top 100 words include 'earlier', 'quietly', 'simply', 'softly', and 'vaguely'. In between 'softly' and 'vaguely' come 'Fred', 'David', 'Sam' and 'Bernard'. Yes, I know those aren't adverbs, but I think it's a very important linguistic fact that these four people are so vocal.

The answer to the mystery was that it's another goofy feature of how Google interprets that asterisk. If it comes in the middle of the quote, it can be matched to a stop word (articles, prepositions, pronouns, etc) but if it comes at the beginning or end, it has to match a content word. Thrilling information, isn't it.

slowlane said...

And here I was thinking that the answer was somewhere in the corners of my linguistic knowledge. I should go take a class in googlology.

One note about what Fred said... Don't you think that Fred would know better than to say anything for the unfortunate way it would be relayed in the future? I think Fred would be much better off yelling or whispering or droning or paraphrasing.

Mataikhan said...

If a blogger posts in the blogosphere, and nobody comments, does he make a noise?

caedmonstia said...

I can tell that you all have much better internet connections than I do... And, what do you all do all day besides typing in asterisks on Google?