Quit While You’re Ahead: When to leave an argument

It would appear to be a simple notion, yet when it comes to communicating, quitting while ahead is often the last goal in one’s mind. Especially if the communication at hand is of a heated or escalated nature, winning the argument often comes with the cost of losing the communication war.


Why quit while you’re ahead?

The notion of quitting while ahead most likely comes from gambling, where one constantly runs the risk of losing everything, regardless of any recent victories or turns of luck. A conversation can be considered a gamble- especially one where the tone is not particularly friendly or socially safe.

Winning or losing may not extend beyond winning or losing face*, but the social capital tied up in saving or keeping face is often part of the turmoil of an argument- your actions and your principles can often take a momentary break from each other, and you might find yourself convincing others of the way you are or what you stand for, but in a way that may emphasize your character flaws instead.

Quitting while ahead can help you avoid backpedaling, embarrassing retractions, or the eventual apology that might be inevitable anyway- no point in having to apologize for being wrong and acting like a rageaholic, or a passive-aggressive jerk.


How to quit while one is ahead?

This is the easiest question in the world to answer, and yet the most difficult to enact in 97.5% of arguments. The key to quitting ahead is embracing a sense o f delayed gratification, and involves exerting a more-than-nominal amount of social capital and personal willpower.

…how does one quit while one is ahead, you ask?

Shut. The. Fuck. Up. It’s that simple. You want to quell an argument? Do you want to de-escalate or prevent an escalation in the first place? Quit while you’re ahead. Shut the fuck up. Just shut up. Cease the stream of increasingly self-righteous, self-serving and self-indulgent rhetoric that’s about to pin you into a verbal corner, and quit while you’re ahead.

This effort is worthwhile at any point in the argument, but its effects are more pronounced the sooner the shutting up takes place. The sooner you disengage and start keeping your opinions to yourself, the less fuel is added to the verbal conflict. By not providing your interlocutor with explanations or retorts you can effectively neutralize a conflict and maintain the advantage by controlling the conversation. As in, ending it. By shutting the fuck up.

*What is face?

Face is how we manage the needs for clarity and politeness. Face-threatening acts are those which threaten the face-wants of a speaker, which impose upon their autonomy or do not emphasize friendliness.

Language & Humor final

it’s been fun teaching this class. i’d do it again any time. here’s my final:

Language & Humor

Final Exam

Spring 2008


Choose one question from each category. Answer each question thoroughly in one page or less. Please write legibly, since I won’t be able to grade it otherwise. Provide thoughtful analysis and examples where necessary or appropriate.


  1. Political Humor (30 pts.)

    1. Explain the difference between targeting an individual and targeting an institution in political humor.

    2. Compare and contrast supportive and benign types of humor.

    3. Is a show such as The Daily Show a valid source of news? Explore the boundary between news media and comedy media.


  1. Bilingualism & Formulaic Language (40 pts.)

    1. Identify and define the SOURCE and TARGET of the following metaphor:


    1. Compare and contrast code switching and Mock varieties of language.

    2. How do formulaic language chunks develop?


  1. Satire (30 pts.)

    1. Give a concise explanation of the purported role of satire in society.

    2. Define irony. Explain its relationship to sarcasm.

    3. Explain the social commentary relayed by the satire in the Wall-Mart episode of South Park we watched.

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final questions and answers

for Dan Sanford’s 490/590 seminar: Formulaic Language.

i had to pick two out of these four:

  • What is the difference, with respect to idioms, between compositionality and conventionality? Why is it a mistake to confuse the two?
  • How are the questions of whether or not idioms are compositional, and whether or not they’re metaphorical, related?
  • Nunberg, Sag, & Wasow make a distinction between Idiomatically Combining Expressions and Idiomatic Phrases, while Fillmore, Kay, & O’Connor make a distinction between encoding vs. decoding idioms. Are the making the same distinction?
  • Construction Grammar explains idioms using the same apparatus that it uses to explain words and sentences. How does that work, exactly?

I chose questions 1 & 4. Following are my answers:

1. The study of idioms has expanded our understanding of processes that work together in dynamic and deeply interrelated ways. This constant discovery of mechanisms accumulates in a large body of work that consists of the observation of and explanation for many overlapping phenomena. The terminology in Linguistics is dense, to be sure. Using words to describe words is a particular challenge because of the nature of words. The ability of language to reproduce itself and create new levels of understanding spontaneously also prohibits consistently translucent definitions. A good example of this threat for confusion is the difference between compositionality and conventionality. Both refer to characteristics of idioms, but the end results in the type of idiom described are different when using these two terms. One of the challenges in understanding these differences is the fact that each author does his or her best to explain their understanding as best they can, and are rarely are successful in sharing exactly what they mean. With this sense of self-awareness I will attempt to describe the difference between the two. Compositionality describes the way an idiom interacts with the language around it. As idioms become less compositional, they become idiomatic phrases (Nunberg & Wasow, 497). Idiomatic phrases are used in such a way that there is no separation of the parts from each other. Phrases such as “jump the gun” are rarely, if ever, seen separated by another part of speech. This reflects the phrasal nature of the idiom, as well as the fact that this phrase only occurs in contexts where the meaning is “one got ahead of one’s self.” At the other end of the spectrum exist idiomatically combining expressions (ICEs) which, although understood at the conceptual level, can be altered via the use of topicality, VP-ellipsis and other arrangement strategies to further specify the conceptual domain of the idiom. An example might be “his opinion pushed a button or two.” The expansion of expression is reflected at the surface level and has a matching correlation at the conceptual level. The literal meaning of the expression is not applicable in either case. The relationship of Conventionality to Compositionality rides on the distinction between idiomatic phrases and ICEs. The conventionality of an idiom is measured in part by its noncompositionality, that is, its status as an idiomatic phrase. These are the phrases that function in speech and in society as normalized nonliteral expressions that the least likely to be used in a manner not in keeping with their commonly understood conceptual message. Conventional idioms are more often used as examples of idioms since they are standardized to a degree. On the other hand, compositional idioms are more often used in spontaneous conversation, since they are more productive.

4. Humans understand language more holistically than any analysis will ever convey. In studying language, the scientist isolates and labels parts, and seeks to explain every level of language as thoroughly as possible. However, this approach stands intrinsically at odds with the way people produce and perceive language. As a result, in our continuing quest to understand it, we have had to overcome certain perceptions which although seemingly intuitive, are incorrect and based on assumptions which do not take into account the holistic nature of linguistic patterns. Construction Grammar (CG), instead of forcing idiomatic expressions into categories in which they do not fit, such as the lexicon or a set of transformational rules, approaches them as indivisible, recognizable linguistic units. In this manner, the parts of an idiom, although separable like the morphemes of a word, cannot be considered meaningful parts on their own. Also at the sentential level, the whole meaning cannot be deciphered when the semantic relationships between the components of the sentence are attended to individually. In separating language across finer distinctions, to the level of allophones, the scientist becomes further removed from the meaning of the whole. The value of approaches like CG is that they address the trends and patterns that comprise the highly regulated structures in language. This is an opposing view to the traditional approach that requires the disassembling of linguistic units, and the subsequent effort to put them back together analytically, as dissected, isolated units with a proper name via the use of rules that often wind up with more exceptions than examples. The inexplicable nature of idioms within this paradigm forced the scientist to consider alternative approaches to the analysis. By accepting and studying idioms as units, many more patterns become visible. By focusing on the observation of linguistic patterns, instead of forming arbitrary criteria to which language must conform, CG can provide a deeper, richer set of explanations regarding the overall nature of language and how it is used to communicate. These explanations reflect the cognitive process more accurately than any set of transformational rules. CG shows us that the mind stores and uses linguistic units of varying length that bear a range of relationships between form and meaning. This ability is then used to efficiently convey meaning in one of the many ways we use to express ourselves. CG allows us to embrace a wider range of language usage than before. By looking at grammatical units as constructions rather than individual words, CG can account for the regular usage of phrases and collocations that before could only be labeled as “special” due to their seemingly contradictory use of duality of patterning while not adhering to the established convention of words as the only recognized meaningful linguistic unit. This is the same dual articulation that has been explored both at the sentential and word levels in the past, and which is at the core of the similarities between words, constructions, and sentences. CG, by establishing the construction as a meaningful unit of language, can more accurately reflect linguistic patterns and explain more holistically the use of language by speakers.

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a fuctionalist turns Prescriptivist

Today I lost my mind on Twitter and pointed out some often misused words & punctuation marks. For posterity, I will enumerate them again here, having wiped off the overtones of condescension and annoyance.

1. Apostrophe use: some simple guidelines.

  • Apostrophes do not mark plural. Do not use them to mean more than one of anything.
  • Ex: cars NOT car’s; CDs & DVDs NOT CD’s & DVD’s.
  • Apostrophes are not used to mark possessives in pronouns.
  • Ex: “Poor dog, its tongue was hanging out.” vs. “It’s time to leave.”; “Whose book is this?” vs. “Who’s going to the show?”
  • Apostrophes are used to mark possessive on nouns.
  • Ex: “Yes, I have Mary’s phone.” or “The car’s tires need to be rotated.”
  • Apostrophes are used to contract the verb “BE” as IS.
  • Ex: it’s = it is; who’s = who is

2. Who vs. Whom: when and why.

  • The –m in WHOM is a leftover from the regular use of the dative case in the past. Same roots as the –m in HIM. This means very little to most. Just remember that
  • WHOM is only used after prepositions:
  • Ex: To WHOM it may concern; For WHOM the bell tolls.
  • In every other situation, WHO is the correct choice.

3. Irregardless is not a word. It’s a redundant construction. Don’t use it

4. Relevancy is not a word. It’s a redundant construction. Don’t use it.

5. For any questions on spelling, I recommend Dictionary.com. Use it. I do.

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LING 490/590 Presentation Hand-out

to explain the data in the last post:

Ruth E. Cisneros | LING 590 | Formulaic Language

Formulaic Language & Humor:

An overview of idiomatic language usage in comedy

I. Introduction

The initial focus of this paper was to explore the intersection between formulaic language and humor by exposing the former in the latter. However, with both humor and formulaic language having broad definitions, the overlap is large and open to a lot of discussion.


  • Lack of availability in transcriptions.

Another avenue of analysis became obvious. It didn’t take long to find examples of formulaic language being exploited to humorous ends in three different skits on Saturday Night Live. Following is an analysis of these three contexts. I hope to pick out some of the nuances of formulaic language as we’ve learned about it this semester via this look at the data.

II. Interesting side note

When thinking about formulaic language & discussing it with others, three or four very prototypical phrases were suggested as formulaic language to look for:

  1. “Is this thing on?”: 332,000 Google hits, most titles to blogs or podcasts
  2. “Don’t forget to tip your waitress”: 942 hits
  3. “I’ll be here all week”: 64,900 hits
  4. “Try the veal”: 50,100 hits

These were overall infrequent collocations and constructions on Google, appearing only as self-aware usage to indicate the specificity of the comedy genre. Overall, however, they do not occur within the genre all that often. None of them appeared in the stand up comedy routines I listened to for this project.

I noticed the same thing with many of the examples used in class. While “kick the bucket” may not be in heavy rotation in spoken language, it is a particularly expressive construction, making it a good example; a representative for the myriad other expressions that fall under the term constructions.

III. Data

Collected from two different episodes of Saturday Night Live, these skits employ and exploit formulaic language in different ways. Their value lay in different aspects of constructions, how they’re used, and the level of awareness we have of them. It is this understanding that allows us to “get it” as a joke.

  1. Travel Writer Judy Grimes: uses “just kidding” between different jokes, original content between each use.

1. Just kidding:

a. speech act indicating the transition between a joke and normative discourse.

b. fulfills pragmatic role – announces change of register

c. fulfills grammatical role – complex construction used as one unit in utterance.

2. Google raw count for “just kidding:” 11,500,000

3. Intuitively & anecdotally labeled formulaic language.

a. allows for the change in topic

b. used as a self-aware mechanism to keep the joke going.

  1. Political Humorist Nick Fehn: uses many different constructions, collocations, and idioms without original content between them. Following are some of the chunks he uses.

1. it’s the reason: 63,400 Google hits

2. I wake up: 1,010,000 hits

3. most Americans: 5,710,000 hits

4. the very idea: 2,050,000 hits

5. any publication: 612,000 hits

  1. Death by Chocolate: acted out literally, casts the chocolate bar in a different light. The lack of language is as powerful a medium when using a structure as familiar as “death by chocolate.” Its metaphorical underpinnings are explored by juxtaposing our understanding of the saying against the literal meaning being played out.

1. Raw Google hits: 295,000 hits

IV. Discussion

The value of this data lies in its commonplace nature. The constructions used as the premise of the jokes are easily recognizable. In all three cases the premise is humorous based on the fact that the dialog is completely overtaken by the prefab pieces, all of which are used daily by speakers in non-humorous contexts.

  • In the first skit, Judy Grimes perpetuates a long, self-deprecating joke by repeatedly attaching the construction “just kidding” to everything she says. The relationship between idiomatic language and creative content (original utterances) is obvious in the way she relates occurrences to “just kidding.”
  • In the second skit, Nick Fehn uses a variety of prefab chunks commonly used as introductions or sentence-starters. The joke lies in he not moving past the introduction and instead putting forth another generic chunk.
  • The third skit was a performance of a collocation being interpreted literally, which creates incongruity in understanding. In this case, the construction is metaphorical in nature, and well-known enough to stand in contrast to a life-size chocolate bar committing murder.

Overall, the role of formulaic language is highly useful, widely used, and a category of language with enough recognizable characteristics that we know how to manipulate them in both normative discourse as well as for humorous purposes.

LING 490/590: Formulaic Languauge Presentation Data

Formulaic Language & Humor:

I. Judy Grimes, Travel Writer – Use of “just kidding:”

II. Nick Fehn, Political Humorist – Use of many idiomatic expressions:
III. Chocolate – acting out of a language chunk:

notes & quotes on: ‘negotiating with demons: the uses of magical language.’

McCreery, John L. 1995. Negotiating With Demons: The Uses of Magical Language. American Ethnologist. Vol. 22, No. 1. 144-164.

first way of reading transcription of an incantation by a Taoist healer in Taipei is as text. However, “dislocated from this primary context, assertions about the significance of particular words or phrases are dubious at best.” (144).

as text, many questions are left unanswered. those interested on Chinese religion will not be able to get all their questions answered.

reading naively causes the anthropologist to see what they are looking for while missing many details that a scientist trained in phonology, syntax and/or prosody might capture. fundamental difference between the two disciplines: the texts/rituals/experiences that anthropologists deal with are inherently (primarily?) linguistic.

notes Bauman’s observation on performance, and points out that in addition to ritual, these are performances. without understanding the basic premises of performance, eg communicative excellence on the part of the performer, among others listed by Bauman, there is certain amount of data outright missing from an ethnographic study.

the anthropologist is successful in capturing many of the nonverbal aspects of the performance. “if anything, our danger is that of drowning in relevant facts; the issue is how to use them. How can we distinguish valid discovery from illusion produced by projecting concepts onto the text that have no solid base -within- the text?” (145).

attempts a middle ground between structuralist/semiotic approaches and process/performance orientation. sharp focus on aesthetic detail, “logic in tangible quantities” (Levi-Strauss 1969: 1). special attention paid to the sequences of rituals, along to type (syntagmatic/paradigmatic) as “properties of ritual language adds force to interpretation.” (145).

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mid term questions and answers

for Dan Sanford’s 490/590 seminar: Formulaic Language.

i had to pick two out of these four:

  • What is formulaic language, what is the lexicon, and what does formulaic language tell us about the lexicon?
  • What are some aspects of language that are difficult to account for in a model of language that makes a clear distinction between the lexicon and grammar?
  • Some people have argued that formulaic language exists in order to save on processing effort. Does this view hold up?
  • Compare the Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff) and Conceptual Blending/Mental Spaces Theory (Fauconnier) approaches to metaphor. How are these two approaches different, and how are they similar? Which, in your opinion, provides a better account of metaphor?

i chose to answer questions 2 & 3. following are my responses:

  1. Like most generalizations about language, making a clear distinction between th lexicon and grammar fails to take into account an important interaction between the two. Even though we have tens of thousands of words individually stored in our lexicons, it’s been discovered that we do not use the lexicon on a one plus one basis all the time. Instead, there are parts of the lexicon that we use in very grammatical-like fashions, to function in a pragmatic way in the utterance while, most often, still maintaining a lexical meaning. In fact, formulaic language, due to its predictable qualities, can index more than one content meaning, giving way to the use of metaphor in our everyday use of language. Without a clear distinction between grammar and the lexicon, categories of words that used to be “exceptions” or were somehow outside the realm of categorization suddenly have a home. Politeness and greeting terms, idioms, catch phrases and children’s rhymes, before relegated to the fringes of language use for a lack of understanding of their nature and function, are now understood to be fundamental and intrinsic to our use of language. It has been estimated that formulaic language can account for almost half of a discourse. The inevitable change in the meaning of a word by way of frequency of use and context deeply influences the way such a word will be used in the future, and when factoring in the rest of the variables that affect language use, it’s easy to see how certain meanings become quickly conventionalized for the sake of mutual understanding. This type of pattern in human behavior is seen in other aspects of language and culture. Ritualized behavior has both cognitive and social roots and expressions. Analyzed language must be looked at like most aspects of human behavior: as a gradient with far-ranging ends of the spectrum.


  1. I don’t have a problem with any of the words in the sentence “[F]ormulaic language exists in order to save on processing effort.” except for “in order to.” I respectfully disagree with this view, and I don’t think that under scrutiny it can be successfully defended. Human behavior is hardly ever motivated on a purely cognitive level. It’s not accurate to view language as some self-fulfilling means and ends. Instead, language is a tool and vehicle by which to acquire, achieve, and exchange other things in the greater reality, and within the social groups we create and belong to in that greater context. In order to achieve and acquire that which prolongs our survival, we must establish a common ground and set of shared experiences with those around us, also social creatures with similar tools to achieve similar ends. It is by this process of establishing mutually beneficial relationships that we use and reuse language. We use language so much, so often, in such similar contexts, that our cognition, the web of interrelated and highly complex mental processes that allow us to mechanize other behaviors such as breathing, blinking, and even more immediately complex sets of actions like drive a car, also mechanizes the gestures necessary to produce certain words and chunks of language. No doubt we save on processing time when we use formulaic language. And no doubt it’s a strategy actively exploited by our cognition to fulfill our greater goals. Human behavior is quickly regularized and ritualized, and meaning is attached to not only the original action or words but to the formulaic versions as well. My repertoire for greetings is large, yet I don’t automatically use the quickest or most used way in just any context. A fully realized “good morning,” one type of chunk, is best when dealing with my boss, whereas “morning” an even more established piece of formulaic language, is appropriate when greeting my peers. The consideration of boss vs. peer dictates a choice that negates efficiency. Ultimately, saying that the conscious motivation of formulaic language is to the end of efficient processing reflects a partial and imbalanced view of the entirety that is the motivation, necessity, and desire to use language.

edith street chronicles 1, my neighbor to the north

1. my neighbor to the north

the answer to the last blog being a bit more obvious to me than what is going on around me, i will postpone that answer in favor of noting the nature of the conversations i’ve had with my new neighbors. i’m finding interesting cultural mechanisms and watching the ties of social networks bind people together. at some point i would like to gather recorded data of a conversation the likes of which i had tonight. during a conversation with my neighbor to the north, i learned about the kinds of social parameters among which humanity communicates and which call back strongly to prior incarnations of human spoken communication, i.e., by short, mid, or long distance travel by foot, stopping to speak to strangers.

my neighbor described to me an exchange as he was sitting outside his house with a man who was homeless. he went on to describe the social graces by which the two sat together for over an hour and a half and traded stories, life information, points of view and all the underlined cultural knowledge and experience that structure such exchanges (much in the same way we were, standing outside and having our first official conversation as neighbors- an exchange with a structure tailored to the information needs of getting to know one’s neighbor). my neighbor to the north had been drinking his last beer, and the traveling man shared his four pack. my neighbor, being the keen social and cultural observer (as he is able to articulate this story in such a way that it has struck me so), later on remembered the man in the same part of town from which he hailed. remembering his name, he told me that his desire was to make sure the man remembered him. my neighbor finally jogged “James”’ memory, and went on to buy him a 4 pack, because at the time, as he pointed out “he could.” this story was told to illustrate my neighbor’s point of view on life, which have a very strong undercurrent of lingusitic availability and willingness, while maintaining an awareness and belief that others do not engage in such behavior and that this is detrimental. this is helpful to me as it gives me insights into how people actively seek others in conversation and the use of spoken language to exchange ideas and information.

this method still overridingly affects our communication and means of doing so, and more importantly creates the types of connections between the people within a society and culture at the immediate, opinion forming level.

this description i feel does not do justice to the exchange i just had. i look forward to the possibility of capturing some speech and transcribing it in order to note the exact linguistic cues that have aided me in this observation. i fear that they are so tenuous, and yet so obvious, that they may seem pedantic or worse, eye rollingly basic. however, there are certain aspects of any language variety, in any space or time, that should be captured as best as possible in order to further our general understanding of language usage.

from now on i’ll continue to keep track of interactions with my neighbors as faithfully as i can, understanding the inherent pitfalls and failings of, to analyze and try to understand the discoursal, pragmatic, and social aspects of language in conversation through the exchanges i have with them. this neighborhood provides me with a rich variety of…well….varieties of speech, and i hope to capture some of the nuances that make up what we call culture and community.

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a lingusitic ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ problem

came across this on the myspace bulletins:


The Importance of Speaking and Understanding English Language in the USA

A Texan is walking through a field, sees a Mexican drinking water from a pool with one cupped hand.
The Texan shouts to the Mexican……………..
“Hey don’t drink that water ……. It has cow poop in it!
The Mexican shouts back “Soy mexicano, yo no entiendo inglés. Hábleme español.”. (I’m Mexican, I don’t speak English. Speak Spanish to me.)
The Texan shouts back: “Utilice ambas manos, usted conseguirá más
Parabeber.”…………………….. (Use both hands, you’ll get more to drink.)
Oh yeah, Mexicans DEMAND that we learn THEIR LANGUAGE
So WE can communicate with THEM.

Why can’t people see how ridiculous this is!
If you agree, pass this on (in English).

If not blow it off……… Along with your future Social Security funds, and a lot of other things!!!


hint: language ideologies and ideologies of language

answer key in the next blog.

Posted in: bilingualism, ideology, language, linguistics by transmitter 2 Comments