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I was celebrating Victoria Day last weekend at the beach with a few friends, discussing the anticipated fireworks show that was to come that evening, when I said “our tax dollars paid for the fireworks” in Japanese. My friends understood what I meant, but said that it *has* to be recast in the passive (or active with a null subject). Why?? What’s going on??

So there’s this little thing in semantics called metonymy, where a word is used to represent another word. A popular example is “I read Shakespeare”, where it’s understood that what’s being read is the works of Shakespeare, rather than the decaying corpse of the Bard. Metonymy comes in various forms such as container-for-contained (e.g. “the White House” for the civ. servants that work in the White House; “dishes” for the food on the dishes, etc.); tool-for-work/accomplishment (e.g. “hand” for “throwing ability”; “pen” for “writing style”, etc.); part-for-whole (e.g. “wheels” for “a car”; “head” for “person” (when counting), etc.), etc.

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As a linguist, meeting a native speaker of a language you’re studying is a pretty exciting event. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that I often have to do a delicate balancing act between “I’m a freakish nerd of your language, which probably implies I want to be one of you, since I’m clearly not from your ethno-cultural group” and “I know nothing and have a general interest in your language.” If I don’t start with a “power introduction” (wherein I detail my research interests and years of experience with their language), I get the slow-and-loud reception. “how. are. YOU. doing?” Thanks, mate. I’m gonna go over here now.


On the other hand, if I start off too strong, my interlocutor won’t be able to relate. After all, what’re the odds that a language learner is also a linguist? So I have to carefully reign it in, to something that the general language learner/speaker can relate to, while still covertly inducting them into certain linguistic aspects.


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This is a bit of a second take on my original insight on double referents. I’m also going to change gears slightly by introducing two related-but-not-immediately-intuitive concepts, so I hope my dear readers will bear with me as you patiently wade through my confusion of jargon and pseudo-logic.

So I’m gonna start by explaining how these constructions work syntactically (at least, so far as my middling understanding can take it), and follow it up by why this type of error is so exciting. As a sort of refresher and motivation to work through this post, I was looking at the construction and deconstruction of the error generated by non-native speakers of English in phrases like (1) and (2).

(1) Your questions are always hard to answer (*it)!

(2) John is easy to please (*him).

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COCA - Corpus of Contemporary American English
L1/L2/... - Primary/Secondary Language
NNS - Non-Native Speaker
NS - Native Speaker