Archive for December, 2007

About itself

About Itself

Haj Ross
Circle – Noetic Services, Inc.
Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brasil
Linguistics, University of North Texas

It is generally felt that most prepositions which are lexically associated with verbs, adjectives, or nouns are idiosyncratic. That is, that it is an accident that it is (up)on that goes with depend, of that goes with afraid, and for that goes with hatred. What I want to do is to suggest that this kind of treatment, while in general probably basically right for many lexical items, and surely unavoidable in at least some cases, is wrong for the non-spatial [but conceptual? / topical? / _____(other)] preposition about.

So what is at issue, then, are apparently idiomatic collocations like talk about, sad about, and tale about. I will not be concerned with any instances of locative about (as in There are millions of pollywogs (all) about the house.), because I believe that there is no lexical item that selects just this preposition, as opposed, say, to selecting a higher-order constituent, such as Locative or Directional. Thus the transitive verb leave requires a direct object and selects Locative, allowing a pretty wide range of prepositions: We left jujubes in/on/around/under/…/about the pail.

This is all I am going to say about this kind of about, because I believe it not to have any special features requiring particular comment, as opposed to whatever treatment is developed for locative constructions in general.

My basic idea is that there is only one other kind of about, and that it is (almost) never used idiomatically. I am forced to parenthetically include the hedge almost because of a few such expressions as to be about to, it’s about time and so on. I believe, however, that these are extremely rare.

What, then is this other about that we hear so much about? Prototypically, its object denotes topics (of acts of speaking), and then, by extension, objects of thinking (i.e., facts or states of affairs), and finally, in some languages, causes of emotions. What follows is a very preliminary list of lexical items which occur with this conceptual (?) about. Since many of these also occur with of, in the same meaning as about, I will indicate this fact, either in blocks of words, where this is possible, or on individual words, when not. “DO” and “IO” after a verb means that the verb takes a direct object or an indirect object before the about -phrase. If prepositions are necessary, I’ll indicate this too.


(1) Verbs

Group 1 (both possible with of):

tell (IO [indirect object]), write ((to) IO)

(2) Group 2 (generally at least poor with of – and systematically worsened by the presence of a prepositional phrase between the verb and the about-phrase. That is, such contrasts as in the following pair of examples seem typical: I have read (?*to her) of various colleges.):

say DO [direct object], read (to IO), complain (to IO), talk (to
IO), speak (to IO), hear (from IO)

[NB: [very few nouns are possible as a DO of say if an about-phrase is to follow: I said [nothing / something / few things / some honeyed words] to Laureen about the size of my apartment.

(3) Group 3 (impossible with of):

(dis)agree (with IO), concur (with IO), argue (with IO), negotiate
(with IO), enquire (of IO), wonder, question DO, query DO, hush up (IO), josh (DO),
kid (DO), report (to IO), go on (to IO), bitch (to IO)

(4) Group 4 (manner of speaking verbs – all take an about-phrase, and most can take
a to-phrase as an IO) (though the presence of a to IO often worsens the
acceptability of the about-phrase – cf. We were lisping (??to Mr. Kvili) about the
responsibilities Jo had], and some of them can have at in place of this paradigmatic
to: I [yelled/shouted /*whimpered/ *lisped] at them about Cuba. Those of them
that allow of to replace about are indicated by a following of in parentheses.)

babble (?of), blabber, blather(?of), blubber, boast (of), brag (of), chat, chatter, coo, curse, dither, giggle, groan, grumble, joke (?of), kvetch, lisp, moan (of), mumble (of), mutter (of), roar, shout, shriek, snicker, snigger, stammer, sputter, stutter, swear, titter, whisper (of), yell (??of)

{Subgroup – manner of singing verbs:

yodel, chant, croon, hum, warble (*to IO),…}

(5) Adjectives (none occur with of)

evasive (with IO), silent (with IO), frank (with IO), deceptive (with IO), reticent (with IO), ?taciturn (??with IO), quiet, voluble, loquacious, effusive, eloquent (?with IO), i (?with IO), ?garrulous

(6) Nouns

story (of), tale (of), account (of), report (of), book [letter, epistle, card, journal,…] (*of)

While these lists could be extended, that is not the main point here, which is to float the following generalization:

Crummy Biconditional # 1

(7) Any verb whose meaning involves linguistic communication will be able to occur with an about-phrase, and any (non-locative) about will have the meaning that its object denotes the topic of the communication.

Before I start battling with the various problems in CB#1 (which are, after all, why it is a crummy biconditional, instead of being a regular one), let me give a few examples to suggest why it is that anyone might want to try to prop up CB#1 even for a minute.

Let us start with the contrasts in (8):

(8) a. Otimar was moaning.
b. Otimar was moaning about something.

(8a) seems to refer to a situation in which Otimar was making sounds which were characterizable as moans (i.e., low-pitched, protracted, who knows what else,…). But (8b) asserts that above and beyond making this kind of noise, there was a possibility of interpreting Otimar’s sounds linguistically. That is, when moan is followed by about, it becomes a verb of linguistic communication.

The same is true with respect to battle. Look at the sentences in (9).

(9) a. They are battling for an island.
b. They are battling about an island.

I feel the same kind of difference here – that (9a) could be used in a military situation, one in which there is no necessary implication of communication between the combatants. This implication is much more strongly suggested in (9b), though not as strongly as in (8b). Is this possibly because the primary sense of moan is one of denoting a kind of auditory experience, while the notion of verbal battle, though perfectly comprehensible, and in fact conventional, is still felt to be slightly metaphorical? I do not know for sure, and will not try to resolve this problem here.

OK. Back to the crumminess. Let’s break up the biconditional into two parts and look at each in isolation.

(10) a. Implication A: any predicate involving comunnication
(signed or spoken) can take an about-phrase.

b. Implication B: whenever about can occur with a predicate, the predicate is one of linguistic communication.

What makes this generalization wrong is two large classes of counterexamples – predicates of cognition, like think about or know about, and predicates of emotion, primarily adjectives: (sad / glad /…about), but also not a few verbs ([grieve / exult /…] + about). Let us look at the case of cognition first.


Verbs Group 1 (all possible with of)

think, know, remind DO

Group 2 (not so hot with of)

learn (from IO) [NB: I learned of [this / ?*Ed] yesterday]

Group 3 (out with of)

remember, figure out, find out, forget


Group 1 (both possible with of)

(un)sure, (un)certain

Group 2 (not so hot with of)

positive [NB: I’m positive of this / *Ed], accurate

Group 3 (out with of)

perceptive, secretive, definite, dubious, vague, (un)clear

Group 4 (better with of than with about)

true, false, cautious, wary

Group 5 (OK with of; weak with about)

conscious, considerate

Group 6 (only with of)


Before I go on with these lists, a few comments are in order. First of all, do not be upset if you find that you are having different judgements from mine on the grammaticality of the various elements in these lists with and without about and/or of. I have only begun to look at this phenomenon, and while I am giving as accurate a set of judgements about my own intuitions as I can come up with, I not only do not expect, but would in fact be astounded if even one other speaker should share my feelings on all of these cases. I suspect that these facts are well below the level at which consensus can be expected. What I do expect, however, is that many, if not all, speakers will have some predicates with which both prepositions can occur, and others for which one of the prepositions will seem stronger. There will doubtless be some commonalities across speakers (for instance, I would be startled if a noticeable number of speakers preferred about to of after aware), but I think that we may defer harvesting these for the moment.
Secondly, the words true and false differ from all others that we have considered so far, in that they do not denote a relationship between a human (or higher animate) being and a state of affairs (the object of about / of). These two words, which occur in contexts like This (sentence / statement /…) is true/false of Texas, thus should not really be called cognizings at all. Nonetheless, I have included them here because of the way they appear to fit in with the patterns that are emerging.
Thirdly, it may seem strange to find a word like aware included in these lists, even though it does not appear to cooccur at all with about, and after all, isn’t that what we’re thinking of / on / about? Yes, but be patient a bit.

Before we turn to an examination of the use of about with predicates that involve emotions, let me mention an interesting class of regularities which my attention was drawn to by an observation of Polly Ulichny’s. This is the fact that there are some words which only accept about when its object is an embedded question. Communicate, describe, talkative, and afraid are four predicates which manifest this phenomenon:

(11) a. He never communicated with us [about where he lived / ?about
his address].
b. ?She tried to describe [about how she had had to leave the
spaceship in an elliptical orbit/*about her difficulties].
c. ?Nega was not very talkative [about how she had escaped/*about
her escape].
d. I’m a little afraid [about what might happen to us / ?about the
future / ??about Soraya].

I believe this phenomenon to be quite widespread among the classes of predicates that interact with about, but I have not yet studied it systematically. I have no idea as to what it might mean. Now as we turn to look at emotion predicates, let me just indicate that I already feel that the distinction between what I am calling topics and what I have referred to above as cognizings is not a very clear one. For instance, I have classified evasive, silent, and quiet among the adjectives linked to linguistic communication, while I have placed secretive among the cognizing adjectives. This reflects my feeling that the sentences in (5a) seem to imply an avoidance of speech, while the sentence in (5b) seems to suggest a pattern of behavior designed to prevent the inferring of any information, even non-linguistic:

(12) a. Jailson was evasive/silent/quiet about some things.
b. Jailson was secretive about some things.

In the case of (un)clear, I feel that things are even worse: there are sentences that can be ambiguous. Consider (6):

(13) Naima was not clear about how long she would be working.

It seems to me that this sentence can be used in two kinds of situations. In the first, it describes the existence within Naima of a state of mental uncertainty. In the second, it refers to the lack of clarity in what Naima said. Thus in the first, nothing need have been said; in the second, the sentence is used to make a metalinguistic assertion.

I have cited these cases to show why I have said that the boundary between topics and cognizings already feels like a difficult one to patrol. I mention this because the boundary between these two (or possibly: this one) things – topics and cognizings – and what we are about to proceed to, namely causes of emotions, seems to me to be an even more slippery one.
Ah well. Let’s try our best.

The reason that I have been speaking about causes of emotion is because of a quite general relation of near, if not absolute, synonymy between sentences with about which denote emotions and corresponding sentences with an explicit causative structure. An example appears in (14):

(14) a. Nick was happy about the popsicle.
b. The popsicle made Nick happy.

There are also verbs which are associated with emotions, or with their expression, and these too seem to yield good causative paraphrases.

(15) a. Bonnie [raged / grieved / fumed / rejoiced] about the skis.
b. The skis made Bonnie [rage / grieve / fume / rejoice].

These emotion-causing about-phrases differ systematically from the about’s that appear with topics or states of affairs as their objects, in that the emotion-causers’ abouts can never be replaced by of. A partial list of verbs and adjectives involving this type of emotion-about follows:

Verbs cry, weep, sob, sigh, laugh, giggle, guffaw, rage, fume, boil, sweat, worry, exult, rejoice, rave,
grieve, freak out, fret, blow up, have a fit, blow one’s stack, feel [good /bad / wonderful /. . . /
terrible /. . .]

Adjectives glad, happy, overjoyed, relieved, sad, nervous, worried, upset, anxious, mad, sorry,
regretful, jealous, preoccupied, antsy, fretful, resentful, angry,. . .

AND the whole of the surprised-class:

surprised, astonished, baffled, disgusted, disgruntled, embarrassed, shocked,. . . (as well as compound adjectives like heart-broken, grief-stricken, awe-struck, etc., which are related to sentences which do not take visible IO’s: I was heart-broken about the Porsche is not related to *The Porsche heart-broke me, but rather to The Porsche broke my heart. Similar acrobatics are necessary for grief-stricken, awe-struck, etc.)

I note in passing that there is another class of adjectives that take about, but which have no causative paraphrase. Some examples appear in (16).

(16) Tex is [good / bad / OK / terrible / funny / generous / . . . ] about
signing checks.

Some attempted paraphrases appear in (17):

(17) a. Tex is [good /bad /. . . ] in the way that he signs checks.
b. The way that Tex signs checks is [good / bad /. . .] [NB: *generous]
c. It is [good / ?bad / *OK / terrible / *funny / generous] of Tex to
sign checks.

The differences in behavior between (10a), (10b), and (10c) make me more than uneasy – they convince me that I have not come close to understanding these adjectives, and they make me almost certain that it is not one class of words involved here but rather a whole bunch. I therefore and hereby throw up my hands about (Hmm – there’s a funny about. . .) the whole mess of them.

One of the things that elates me / grief-strikes me about this whole area is the fact that we are obviously not grappling with an English oddity here. Whatever turns out to work for English about ~ of had better be general enough to work for German über ~ von, Portuguese sobre ~ de, French de (and maybe sur?), and so on. These languages have one preposition which has a locative meaning –English about = “around (±);” German über = “over;” Portuguese sobre= “above, over;” French sur = “on” – and one which is used in possessive or genitival constructions. Thus

a desk of Tony’s / a picture of Tony

(More thought necessary than currently available)




It was time to dig a well in Vermont.
My mother, never one to waste a penny,
asked in the town as to who was good
at finding where the water was.

The answer came up Walt Stowall, our plumber,
a farmer from down Townshend way,
a big round patient man whose vowels
were clipped and honest as a hoe,

a less mystical and airy-fairy person
you could not imagine in those blue overalls.
He come up to the house one spring morning
when the sap was running like the roaring creek

and cut his witching rod, a young sapling
maybe three and a half foot long, started
off near the house, with that young maple
sticking out horizontal in front of him,

Didn’t take much time for water either –
that stick pulled straight down, yanking
out his hands like a trout was
on the other end of a line to it.

I was in my teens, I think, I’d never
seen water found like this or any other way,
so when he asked me if I’d like to try
myself, the answer was out in a flash.

He showed me how to use the stick:
you grab it with the stem pointing down,
you hold the forking branches of the Y
like you would two ropes coming from above.

And then you turn your wrists towards you,
so that stem goes out before you like a lance.
I maybe felt a little foolish like that,
as I walked right towards the spot

where I had seen him hold that jumping rod
pulling down so hard the bark had twisted
off the slick light wood that he was holding
on so tight to. And when I hit that spot:

Nothing. Not a twitch. I was disappointed –
I’d hoped to feel that dancing in my hands too.
He offered to help. I went back over to him
and he walked behind me, He put his great

arms round mine, his strong paws gently
on my forearms, we started back towards where
he’d had his strike, maybe ten steps
from where we were, out in front the house.

We got there slowly, then: TOOONG!
He didn’t push one bit, whatever bends the rod
came up into me, the hook sets –
is a lightning rod, a charge

That Y-stem yanked down just like for him,
I held on tight like he had, my world
changed then, it won’t change back,
not as long as I can feel like then

that rod jumping, twitching, pulling
out away from me, pointing down
towards some spring, just like a setter
points towards the fallen duck.

Dowsing isn’t just a theory when you’ve
tensed your forearms against the tug
of something hidden so far below you
that you didn’t know you knew to sense

its presence. Mr. Stowall gave me certainty
that day, just like he gave us water for the house.
He and I were unconcerned about questions
any scientist would ask: was water found

that day so long ago? Of course. There was
no doubt that when the digger came and sank
that steel into the vein he’d found that there’d
be water for us – they only went down

twenty-five feet, that well is running strong
right to this day. There was no mystery
in the digging. My mother knew the folks
in town would know who knew his stuff.

She probably paid a couple dollars as she thanked
him in the kitchen, poured some juice to drink.
And I had learned: there is an art to divination.
Our body knows so much we never see.



Future computers

“Where the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1 1/2 tons.”

—Popular Mechanics, March 1949

A present from Ellen F. Prince


Albert Einstein

“I never try to teach
my students anything.
I only try to create
an environment in
which they can learn.”

– Albert Einstein

“One had to cram all this stuff into one’s head, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problem distasteful to me for an entire year…. It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry: for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom: without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry – especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.”

Einstein on the mystical (40)

Regarding the Einstein quote, I found that same quote (only different) in Relaxation, Concentration and Meditation: Ancient Skills for Modern Minds, by Joel Levey (an excellent book). ISBN 0 86171 040 1

Here’s the quote:

The most beautiful and most profound emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetratable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illuminable superior who reveals himself in the slightest details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction for the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

Albert Einstein

A present from Alicia Paez

“The really valuable thing is the Intuition. The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, and the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why.”

– Albert Einstein

A present from Chelsea Amberle Fischer
English 4040, Fall 1995

Where the world ceases to be the stage for personal hopes and desires, where we, as free beings, behold it in wonder, to question and to contemplate, there we enter the realm of art and of science.
If we trace out what we behold and experience through the language of logic, we are doing science; if we show it in forms whose interrelationships are not accessible to our conscious thought but are intuitively recognized as meaningful, we are doing art.
Common to both is the devotion to something beyond the personal, removed from the arbitrary.

Albert Einstein

[quoted in Heinz-Otto Peitgen and Peter H. Richter, The Beauty of Fractals, Springer-Verlag, Berlin (1986), p.1]

Einstein – three rules (39)

1. Out of clutter, find simplicity.

2. From discord, find harmony.

3. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity

Albert Einstein
three rules of work

Quoted in David Schiller
The Little Zen Companion.
Workman Publishing,
New York (1994), p. 300

“The really valuable thing is the Intuition. The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, and the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why.”

“Whoever undertakes to set himself
up as a judge in the field of truth and
knowledge is shipwrecked by the
laughter of the gods.”

Albert Einstein

Thanks to Dee Horne


W. S. Merwin: Yesterday

Visit the site for Bill Moyers’ wonderful film – Fooling with Words:

There you can see a number of wonderful pieces of the film – in particular, you can watch W. S. Merwin read this wrenching poem:


My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

W. S. Merwin

From Opening the Hand, by W. S. Merwin, published by Atheneum.
Copyright © 1983 by W. S. Merwin.


Paul Reps on moderation

Moderation in all things – including moderation.

Paul Reps


We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors

Friends –

I just was sent, by my old pal Terry Halwes, the following link:

It is to a short film, featuring Annie Leonard, on how our consumption is grinding us into the ground. I find it very well made, and I wish very much that more people who make bigger decisions than I do could see it. And I also wish that kids could see it. I think anybody older than 8 will be able to understand it, and that will help the huge turning around that we all have to put our minds to, can not only begin with us, but can catch fire in the lives of the little people who we are turning the planet over to.

This quote went way deep into me:

We do not inherit the world from our ancestors,
we borrow it from our children.

Native American saying

Anyway, please watch this film yourselves, and pass it on to as many people as you think will take it to heart.

Peace –