Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You've been sentenced

My friends and I spent New Year's Eve playing Boggle and a game called You've Been Sentenced. You've Been Sentenced is a grammar game: there are pentagonal cards with different parts of speech on them, and players must create sentences using only the words on the cards. Each card has five choices worth varying amounts of points (a, one, the, some, any; five proper nouns; during, on, at, from, before; wish, wishes, wishing, wisher, wished). Players then vote on whether a sentence makes sense grammatically and content-wise. The procedure generates a lot of "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" attempts. You don't have to use all the cards, and it's probably a good idea not to force too many words into unwieldy, Pavement-lyric sentences, but I did not heed this advice and was challenged (quite rightly) on many sentences. Some of the better attempts from our games:

Broken, smelly lover, quietly you grew away from procedures on the show.
That mommy, monetarily rocketing with her pram, needs a sentencing.
In the '50s, troubled Marilyn Monroe planned this slick trip.
Classes do learn because of itchy poisonings.
Which of your maddening copied recipes is peppery?
Squirrelly Pretty Paula sees a needy rocket-man in the dentist's chair.
A kind of cooled gas is faster.
This stupid odd fatso bagged flipping Fred Rogers. ("Hahaha, let's unbutton your cardigan, and you already have your shoes off...")
In the bar, noisy, mean Howard Hughes was fumbling, slowly necking. (Gross.)
What if boring Willy T. is already the next right field doctor?
What if, far from making friends, Saintly Susan freaked out above the pot party? (It was pointed out to me that I should have had Saintly Susan freak out about the pot party, since that was an option on the card.)
Moving secretly, the caregiver balanced on patches. ("Of ice!" Paige pleaded. "The ice was referred to in previous sentences!" No deal. There are lots of unclear antecedent challenges in the game.)
Her blond, black, ladylike, lumpy punter quit yawning American-style. (This sentence also provoked some discussion. Oddly enough, we weren't taking issue with the bizarre string of adjectives describing the punter, but we wanted to know whether "American-style" referred to yawning or quitting.)

Though I didn't write it down, there was considerable bickering over a sentence about a burglar who "sneaked solitaire through the museum" (or something). "Solitaire" didn't fit as an adverb. Nick grabbed his Mac for assistance. "There are plenty of uses of 'walked solitaire' on the Internet!" he said. He would Google it. His voice faltered. "Like on someone's MySpace blog..."

MySpace was not going to sway us in our moment of prescriptivist primness. MySpace is not the site you want to use to make the positive case for descriptivism.

It was around this time that another friend text-messaged from our trivia bar in New York to say Happy New Year and that Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again On My Own" was playing (we had enjoyed some trivia success weeks before by identifying a photo of David Coverdale). Here was convergence. My theme song is all about "going down the only road I've ever known / Like a drifter I was born to walk alone." But "solitaire" and the past tense form of a verb do not have the same grammatical possibilities as those verbs with "alone" and "on my own."

So though Nick kept searching for answer, he would never seem to find what he was looking for online. Or he would probably find it, but it would be a waste of time. Sometimes we play Boggle with the online dictionary to make the case for outliers, as in this Slate article about the how Word spellcheckers and aggregate Web queries reflect and/or determine how language is used and corrected:
What's behind this disparity? Word processors and search engines have different goals. The latter has to field queries as broad and varied as the Internet itself, so it needs a very large vocabulary in order to differentiate spelling mistakes from legitimate search terms. Word processors are much more conservative, limiting their lexicon to words that are definitely legitimate. This way, a program like Word can catch virtually every typo, even if it means misidentifying some proper names and newer words. In other words, search engines put breadth first and spelling accuracy second while word processors are the other way around. If you type in Monkees, Google will assume you're searching for the band; Word will give you a red squiggly line, thinking you've screwed up the word monkeys.

Not surprisingly, search engines and word processors build their dictionaries differently. A search engine's lexicon is typically put together using words gathered from Web pages or old search queries—a huge corpus of real-world data that constitutes a list of valid words and their frequency in the language. Word-processing lexicons are more heavily chaperoned, and the pace at which new terms enter the dictionary is much slower.

Web searches are particularly good for registering how proper nouns are added to a language, which isn't the province of Boggle, but it's still an interesting comparison to the occasionally arbitrary Boggle or Scrabble dictionary. In an article on online Scrabble in the latest New Yorker, Judith Thurman notes that one of the interesting features of online Scrabble at Scrabulous is that you can choose which dictionary to use. Since I am not on Facebook and thus don't play the online versions of these games, I'd like to know how the word generating in the online games is different from the IRL ones. Any ideas? My only data is I've been left in the dust by people who play online; playing frequently lets you develop superior skills that cannot be approximated by sometimes playing Boggle by oneself while one is watching Law & Order.

Aha, and I see an acceptable usage of "solitaire" in Thurman's final paragraph:
...I used to keep in form between matches by playing Scrabble solitaire at the kitchen table. The greatest drawback was that I couldn't bluff myself by laying a "phony" (a plausible but nonexistent word like "pukha" or "burlock"), or by deliberately misspelling a common noun ("fettel") to lure an opponent into making it plural, then challenging it off the board--a legitimate if churlish ploy.

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Blogger Katy on Tue Jan 13, 09:58:00 PM:
Alice, I think I've said this before, but you should join Facebook so we can play Scrabble. You can choose between two official Scrabble dictionaries, so there's really no word generation right in the game.

Sometimes I get frustrated with words that aren't in the Scrabble dictionary on Facebook. I keep wanting "dek" to work, and it doesn't (and K is worth five points!). I think I was able to play "yob" once, but "craic" didn't fly, so I'm not really sure how the Scrabble bigwigs treat non-American English and dialects. Maybe I'll ask my dad to weigh in on that one.