One of the necessary evils of academic writing are references: you have to add them, format them, keep them up to date, etc. Now, granted, the advent of LaTeX/BibTeX has made life a lot easier in this respect: you add a reference to your bib-file once, and from there on out you always have it at your fingertips in whatever referencing style you need. But ... you still have to add the references in the first place. I know, I know, this is quite the first world problem, but like so many first world problems these days, there's an app for that! Enter RefME, an app that promises to be "the free tool to generate citations, reference lists and bibliographies".

What does it do?

In a nutshell, it creates references for you. All you have to do is scan a barcode (of a book), enter a DOI-number, or simply search based on author or title and poof! a reference magically appears, in one of over 6,000 referencing styles for you to choose from. There's an iOS-app and a web-app, and once you have the references you need, you can export them to a variety of places like your clipboard, Evernote, Word, Endnote, BibTex, etc. It sounded pretty good, so I had to put it to the test.

Does it work?

I first decided to scan the barcodes of all the books I had lying about in my immediate vicinity:

  1. R. Zanuttini & L. Horn Micro-syntactic variation in North American English
  2. D. Geeraerts Theories of lexical semantics
  3. H. Smessaert Basisbegrippen morfologie
  4. C. Wheelan Naked statistics
  5. R. Munroe Wat als
  6. L. Gonick & W. Smith The cartoon guide to statistics
  7. F. du Bois & I. Boons Gin & Tonic: de complete gids voor de perfecte mix

I used the iOS-app to scan the barcode on the Geeraerts-book, and in the blink of an eye, the following appeared on screen:

@book{Geeraerts_2009, title={Theories of Lexical Semantics}, ISBN={9780198700319}, publisher={Oxford University Press, USA}, author={Geeraerts, Dirk}, year={2009}, month={Jan}}

Ok, not perfect—publisher's location is missing—but pretty good nonetheless. The same was true for numbers 1, 4, and 6: here and there information was missing, but it got the basics right. The app struggled, though, with the Dutch books on my list. In one case (number 5), it filled in author and title but nothing more, for another (number 3) it could only give me the ISBN-number, while the third one (the G&T-book) it didn't recognize at all. Then I entered some DOI-numbers in the web-app. This produced great results: all of them yielded perfectly formatted and complete references. Finally, I looked for some papers based on their authors and (keywords from) titles. It worked well with journal articles (I looked for Merchant's 2013 LI-article on voice and ellipsis and Adger's 2006 paper on combinatorial variability in the Journal of Linguistics), but behaved strangely with book chapters. I searched for "luigi rizzi fine structure left periphery" in the section Book chapters and found the relevant Haegeman-volume, but without title and author of the chapter filled in, while in the section Journal articles I found title and author, but it looked like the paper had appeared in the 'journal' Kluwer International Handbooks of Linguistics. A similar fate befell Kratzer's seminal 1996-paper on severing the external argument from the verb.

In short, mixed results: when it works, it works quite well and is highly useful, but there are also still clear gaps in RefME's bibliographical knowledge, some not unsurprising (I wouldn't expect a Belgian Dutch guide on how to mix the perfect Gin & Tonic to be in their database), others quite mysterious (like the Rizzi-paper).

How much does it cost?

Nothing. Nada. Bupkis. Typically, this is a cause for concern. Here's what RefME themselves say on their support page in reply to the question "How does RefME make money?":

RefME is very lucky to be supported by investors focused on growth. Our goal is to reach 10 million users within the next 18 months and we are already well on the way to reaching that number. We do know how to make money but don't worry, we aren't selling anyones [sic] data or working with any publishers (and never will!). RefME will also always be free to students :)

Translation: you'll have to accept on good faith that we'll be good. I actually wouldn't mind paying for this app, because it clearly has the potential of being very useful—imagine having to add 100 references to your bib-file in one go; RefME could speed up that process considerably—but then it has to become much more accurate.

  1. Don't judge me.

  2. The HPSG-community has quite a good solution to this conundrum: they host a central bibliography.

so far and yet so near

While I'm at it, here's another new paper of mine, this one in collaboration with Tanja Temmerman. It starts out from a seemingly crazy idea originally proposed by Kyle Johnson in a paper in Lingua, namely that two elements that for all intents and purposes look to be non-adjacent, can nonetheless be considered adjacent under a multidominant analysis. I was quite skeptical of the idea at first—witness footnote 22 in Johnson's paper—but as Tanja and I discovered, it allows you to have your cake and eat it too when it comes to negative indefinites such as no car. As many peope have pointed out, negative indefinites seem to be semantically—and in some cases morphologically—composite in that they contain both negation and an existential. Accordingly, some of the earliest analyses of the phenomenon assumed a kind of fusion or amalgamation approach, whereby clausal negation and the indefinite determiner of the direct object fuse into a single negative determiner no. However, while that works fine for an OV-language like Dutch, where negation linearly precedes the indefinite determiner of the object, it goes awry in English, where the verb intervenes between clausal negation and the direct object (John did not eat a cookie.).

Enter Johnson's idea, and all of a sudden, negation and direct object can be adjacent even in a language like English. What's interesting about this approach—and this is actually the main topic of our paper—is that it correctly predicts negative indefinites to interact with ellipsis in ways that are unexpected under a movement- or Agree-based approach. The paper is relatively technical—and some of the trees rather funky-looking—but the general message I think is clear and quite thought-provoking: being close to one another does not necessarily mean the same thing for morphosyntax as it does for Spell-Out. In other words, Metallica had it right all along.


As I'd already hinted at in a previous post, over the last year or so, I've grown more and more interested in a possible interaction between quantitative and qualitative linguistics. The phrase I've been using to sum up my approach is "quantitative methods in theoretical linguistics" (or QMTL for short). Note the figure-ground relation between the two DPs in this phrase: theoretical linguistics is the background against which this research takes place. I am and remain first and foremost a formal linguist, and the goal of my writings is and remains to uncover and model the formal system underlying human language. At the same time, though, formal linguists cannot remain blind to the myriad of sophisticated and useful techniques that are out there and that are driving large portions of the field that are not under the rubric of 'theoretical (or formal) linguistics'. I believe that a genuine mututally beneficial interaction between the two is possible and intend to pursue this in the years to come. Last year I've given a number of talks about this topic, and now I've (finally) written them up into a paper. Here's the abstract:

"This paper combines quantitative-statistical and formal-theoretical approaches to language variation. I provide a quantitative analysis of word order variation in verb clusters in 267 dialects of Dutch and map the results of that analysis against hypotheses extracted from the theoretical literature on verb clusters. Based on this new methodology, I argue that variation in verb cluster ordering in Dutch dialects can be largely reduced to three grammatical parameters."

It's a first draft, so there's still a lot of room for improvement (if you have specific suggestions, let me know), but all in all I'm pretty happy with how it turned out and look forward to continuing along this path in future work.

  1. In Dutch we have the eminently more useful word wisselwerking to describe this concept.

It's the little things

You'll be happy to hear, dear reader, that a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. A cross I had been bearing for the past couple of years has been taken away. I've gone through the tunnel and have come out the other end into the light. Hell, I'd even say there's been an awakening.

I invariably love it when there's a part of my life where I can cut out the middle man, where I can increase my level of independence and responsibility. To paraphrase Voltaire (as well as an arachnidically gifted fellow): with great responsability comes great power. Not surprisingly, then, when home banking became a thing many years ago now I was first in line to try it out. For those of you unfamiliar with the procedure—hello, readers from the US—the bank issues you a battery-powered card reader, which you can use to authenticate against their website. While offering me many years of hassle- and middle man-free monetary exchanges, this card reader was also the source of my abovementioned hardship. You see, whenever you enter your PIN number on this little device, the following message pops up:

Oh, how this message irked me! It. Drove. Me. Nuts. No, not because it's written in ALLCAPS. After all, both PIN and OK are acronyms (of sorts). Nor was I bothered by the lack of functional vocabulary items. Screen real estate is highly precious on a device this small, so a switch to headlinese made perfect sense. No, the thorn in my side was that exclamation point at the end of this pseudo-sentence. The card reader is not just informing you that you have correctly entered your PIN number, it is shouting ecstatically: Fantastic, you got your PIN number correct! Great job! Every time I felt like screaming right back at it: Of course I got it right: it's four numbers for cryin' out loud and I enter them all the time! Why on earth would I get them wrong? It was especially maddening when you had to enter your PIN a couple of times in quick succession (once to log in, once to sign a transaction, etc.). Every Single Time the exclamation point was there, like an overencouraging parent giving a pep talk for their two year old.

There was nothing I could to to right this wrong, however, so I suffered in silence. Until last week, that is, when I received a brand new card reader from the bank. They were revamping their home banking infrastructure and asked me to use the new card reader from now on. Imagine my joyful surprise when, after entering my PIN number for the first time, this showed up:

No more exclamation point! I almost couldn't believe it, and immediately entered my PIN a second time to check that this wasn't just some random fluke, but no sir, this was the real deal. The exclamation point was finally gone. Balance had been brought to the Force. I could sleep peacefully again.

  1. I tried to get a friend of mine who works for the bank that issued the card reader to bring up the issue with his bosses, but he didn't seem to appreciate the poignancy of the matter.

VP-ellipsis 2.0

Ah, that wonderful feeling of finishing and submitting a paper; there's nothing quite like it. Today was one of those joyous days: I submitted the revised version of my chapter on VP-ellipsis for the upcoming second edition of the Blackwell Companion to Syntax (and yes, once again I missed the submission deadline by quite a margin, and once again I'm not happy about that).

I'm of course biased, but I think this version is a substantial improvement over the previous one: the cross-linguistic ellipsis data are now more tightly integrated into the rest of the paper (making their relevance and importance for the theory of ellipsis clearer), the work by Andrew Kehler is now acknowledged (not mentioning it was a substantial omission in the first version), at several points I've incorporated some additional, very recent work on VP-ellipsis (most notably two interesting papers by Philip Miller and collaborators), and of course I got to use the fantastic sentence The precise nature of the movement operation responsible for evacuating Donald Duck out of the ellipsis site is a matter of much debate.

Given that you're all very busy and can't be expected to read every single overview article that crosses your path (let alone a second version of such an article), I thought I'd give you a quick and easy wordcloud summary of the paper. This is what it looks like:

No big surprises here, except perhaps the relatively high frequency of  rutabagasmadame, and spanella, but if you're familiar with what is arguably one of the most important (if not the most important) papers on VP-ellipsis, these terms too quickly fall into place.

  1. Yes, I'm cheating slightly, because in the original quote Donald Duck is in italics, but let's not split hairs here.