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I would like a generative BNF-style complete description for English grammar. Some of the more subtle stuff leads to awkward questions of grammaticality. The interior rules for forming STATEMENTS must include adjectives formed from gerunds, to make sense of clearly grammatical stuff, like:

"The sweating man walked south"

But then, extending the gerund to a gerund-phrase in the BNF, you get a lot of variations on this peculiar americanism, a favorite of Foghorn Leghorn's:

  • "Just wait one cotton picking minute!"

EDIT: response to ignorant comments, answers, and downvotes

I got told that "cotton picking minute" is a cussing idiom, and that this grammatical rule does not exist in English:

"french fry frying frier", "leopard skinning machine", "folding chair", "first responding officer", "rain seeding airplane", "snow blowing machine", "county election stealing candidate", "emergency training wheels" "ocean swimming gear" "gullt presuming judge", "load bearing truss", "direction finding equipment", "spoken voice recording technology",

For a demonstration that this is an actual recursive rule, not a way of forming noun expressions from gerunds:

  • "The habitually repulsively loudly obnoxiously snoring captain awakened me from my sleep."
  • "I bought a DNA, RNA and protein sequencing machine."
  • "I found the constant running gag repeating in that movie grating."
  • "Those sweater vest, suit and tie sporting Chomsky quoting businessmen are getting on my nerves!"

I could go on all "mother-fucking" day. So please stop pretending that this is not English. I just want to know how far you can go before it stops being comprehensible

END OF EDIT

The cotton-picking minute is a minute picking cotton, where the picking cotton has been made into an adjective by gerundizing. This construction makes an adjective out of a gerund phrase. I put this in the BNF, and it generates some weird sentences. I was wondering which ones were considered grammatical. I will write them all in Foghorn-Leghorn character voice, because that's what they sound like to me.

  • That's an apple table putting plumber there, son! (that plumber puts apples on tables")

  • That's a paragraph short story including writer there, boy! (That writer puts paragraphs in short stories)

The second example has two-word object of the word "include", is this still ok?

  • That's a long, eye-poppingly detailed, paragraph short story putting writer there, son!

Is this still ok?

  • I say! Boy. that's one horse bridle neck putting jockey riding there.

  • That's a falling off the tree apple, wooden table wobbling on its legs, putting plumber there, boy!

  • I say. I say. That her boy to school in a car driving mom went on the plane.

  • The fish in his mouth with gusto chewing masseusse was done chewing the fish in his mouth with gusto.

The last two have optional arguments in the construction, and each of these have pretty much independent issues. For example, the second to last construction has a "her" with a binding to "mom", which goes a different direction than usual. The previous has embedding within the arguments. The first two sentences lack the proper forms on the arguments of the gerund, they might be correctly rendered as:

  • That's an apple on the table putting plumber there, son.

  • That's a paragraph in a short story including writer there, son.

You can also recurse this construction:

  • That's an apple on the vase supporting table putting plumber there, son.

or, with single-words

  • That's a ripening apple eating plumber there, son.

It is dead easy to exclude these constructions--- simply require that the arguments of the verb must be one word long. But looking at them for a while, they start to sound ok to me as is. Do others agree? Are these grammatically ok?

These phrases are automatically generated by an English BNF, if you treat these gerund phrases consistently. They can be excluded by modifying the BNF to disallow multiple word arguments on gerund phrases in this position. I want to know the intuition consensus before making a decision.

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closed as not constructive by nohat Mar 5 '12 at 22:10

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I don't understand the downvotes. Is this a bad question? I am a native English speaker, and I get confused if these on the surface ok seeming constructions are legitimate. I just used one, by the way, as I do every once in a while. Is this a grammar error? Nobody has said –  Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 18:07

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I will try to help you with some grammaticality judgments. In my suggestions I will use hyphenation to mark the adjective phrase, a common but not universal style choice that I'm using here for clarity; the hyphens aren't pronounced, of course.

That's an apple table putting plumber there, son!

Unnatural. I'd expect either That's an apple-on-the-table-putting plumber or That's a table-apple-putting plumber.

That's a paragraph short story including writer there, boy!

Unnatural, for similar reasons. One does not "include a paragraph short story", one "includes a paragraph in a short story.". I'd expect That's a paragraph-in-a-short-story-including writer.

That's a long, eye-poppingly detailed, paragraph short story putting writer there, son!

Unnatural, and approaching the bounds of comprehension. I'd expect perhaps That's a long-eye-poppingly-detailed-paragraph-in-a-short-story-putting writer.

That's one horse bridle neck putting jockey riding there.

Unnatural, with bridle in between horse and neck. I'd expect That's one horse-neck-bridle-putting jockey or That's one bridle-on-a-horse-neck-putting jockey.

That's a falling off the tree apple, wooden table wobbling on its legs, putting plumber there, boy!

I don't judge this one grammatical at all, though I sense the meaning. That's a falling-off-the-tree-apple-onto-a-wooden-table-wobbling-on-its-legs-putting plumber, maybe. Or That's a putting-a-falling-off-the-tree-apple-onto-a-wooden-table-wobbling-on-its-legs plumber better yet.

That her boy to school in a car driving mom went on the plane.

Nope. Having her boy phrase-initial makes it ungrammatical to me. That driving-her-boy-to-school-in-a-car mom.

The fish in his mouth with gusto chewing masseusse was done chewing the fish in his mouth with gusto.

This is fine.

That's an apple on the table putting plumber there, son.

This is fine.

That's a paragraph in a short story including writer there, son.

This is fine.

That's an apple on the vase supporting table putting plumber there, son.

This is bewilderingly ambiguous though perhaps not ungrammatical. I can envision either the vase or the apple supporting the table, or the table supporting the apple or the vase!

That's a ripening apple eating plumber there, son.

This is fine.

That's an on-the-tree-ripening-apple-eating plumber, son.

This is ok. I'd maybe expect That's an apple-ripening-on-the-tree-eating plumber, son.

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I realized I had a nice embedding in my own answer: "Having her boy phrase-initial makes it ungrammatical to me." –  Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 16:54
    
Thanks. Regarding cotton-picking, I was merely referring to that particular lexeme as being frozen. I think the construction overall can be ok in some cases, as I show above. Sorry for any confusion. –  Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 18:30
    
That's the answer. I am sure with all the downvotes I will never get a better one. Thank you. I notice, though it is completely irrelevent, that I screwed up the gender of "masseuse"! –  Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 18:34
    
Any chance for a comment on the recursive "That's an on-the-tree-ripening-apple-eating plumber son"? –  Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 18:40
    
@RonMaimon I added it. –  Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 21:06

Wow. Cotton-picking is a euphemism for god-damned. The "cot" sounds a bit like "god", but then it switches to a phrase that isn't swearing. Like all swearing, it doesn't apply literally. It doesn't mean a minute spent picking cotton, or a minute that god reached out and damned, or anything like that. It follows the rules of adjectives except that it's an intensifier - you can put it wherever you would put an adjective but it doesn't actually describe the noun. See also New York minute.

All the rest of your examples assume a rule about sentence inversion that (as you've painfully demonstrated) doesn't particularly exist. They also assume that if one particular construct is legal English grammar, any other construct using the same structure but different words will also be legal, and that's a dangerous and inaccurate assumption.

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I agree; 'cotton-picking' isn't a phrase with a gerund, it's a single token. –  Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 16:56
    
Whatever the history of "cotton picking minute", and I'm sure that you're right about it, it has a literal meaning. The same grammar structure is seen in: "french fry frying frier", "leopard skinning machine", "folding chair", "first responding officer", "rain seeding airplane", "snow blowing machine", "county election stealing candidate", and a hundred other obviously normal constructions with varying levels of complexity. This means that it is a grammar rule, not a one-off idiom as you are wrongly suggesting. –  Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 16:59
    
@Mark Beadles: See my comment above. The "cotton picking minute" is the same as "emergency training wheels" "ocean swimming gear" "gullt presuming judge" and I could go on all day with stuff that you would accept without question. The question is where the boundary between grammatical and ungrammatical lies. –  Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 17:02
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@RonMaimon 'cotton-picking' only has a literal meaning in the same way that 'motherfucking' does; which is to say, it doesn't. –  Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 17:12
    
@Mark Beadles: But this construction is ubiquitous! And "motherfucking" is another example, by the way. –  Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 17:18

The problem with computerizing English grammar is that it is not a logically complete set of rules, but a method of communication; your phrases cease to be good English precisely when they cease to be sensible, which a computer can't recognize but a human being can. As a rule of thumb, I would say that a phrase including a preposition is too confusing, so that an apple-eating plumber is understandable while an apple-down-street-rolling plumber is not. (I see your form deals with this by simply omitting the preposition; that's not grammatical by anybody's standards.) But if, in a specific situation, it is necessary to distinguish one tradesman by his habit of dealing with fruit, and the recipients understand both the necessity and the reference, the second phrase might be considered grammatical.

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You are confusing semantics with syntax. The meaning is generally not important for testing grammaticality, although it helps if the sentence makes sense. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is Chomsky's famous example. –  Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 14:26
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The grammar of English can be roughly described using logical rules. But the grammar of English is defined by usage and understanding. That is the linguistic explanation. If you are trying to mash English into a computer program, then this is probably a question better suited to a computer programming site. –  tenfour Mar 5 '12 at 14:55
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@Ron: no, my point is precisely that separating semantics from syntax is where your grammar becomes a subset of English, defined by you. This may or may not be helpful, (depending on the uses to which you put it), but you should not claim that it is a complete description of English. –  TimLymington Mar 5 '12 at 15:25
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@RonMaimon: you are making an awful lot of assumptions, which may be reasonable, but are not necessarily valid, such as that "The grammar of English is a logically complete set of rules, which may be easily computerized", and "a description of the grammar is complete when it defines the parse rules, not the semantics". The latter is one way of defining "grammar", but not the only way: some regard Chomsky's example as ungrammatical. –  Colin Fine Mar 5 '12 at 18:36
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@Ron: Yes, the general formation is 'grammatical' (accepted and understood and somewhat natural) in -informal- English. Of the few computerized examples of grammars for English (see javaCC or link grammars), I don't think any of them attempt to do the rules of (the many) informal varieties of English. –  Mitch Mar 6 '12 at 14:20

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