English is right-associative, French is not

Eric | July 16, 2008

One of the many things that I learnt during my time in Canada is how to write decent English. In part this is due to Patrick Lam, who thoroughly corrected every little mistake of mine when writing on joint papers, and who even bought me The Elements of Style before he left McGill. On the other hand, it is due to Laurie Hendren, the best of all graduate-student supervisors. One thing she taught me – and this stuck – was when and where to set hyphens and she did it in a way that a person like me (a compiler dude) would never forget: "English is right-associative!"

What does that mean? Well that means that if you write something like “graduate student supervisors” (see above) in English (flag:uk) language then the default interpretation is a bracketing like this: (graduate (student (supervisor))). But this is not the intended meaning! You are not a (student supervisor) who graduated, you are a supervisor of (graduate students). Therefore, one must “set brackets” explicitly by using a hyphen: the form graduate-student supervisor yields the parse tree ((graduate student) supervisor), which is what we want. (Interestingly there’s only one level of bracketing this way.)

Tonight I wondered though, how this might be in French (flag:fr) . Living in Quebec, you quite often notice that English and French do have a lot in common, but that very often the French terms are written just in inverse order, but not always: University Street becomes Rue University (yes, with a “y”!) but big car manufacturer (notice, that the manufacturer is big; he does not produce big cars –> right-associative) becomes grand constructeur automobile. I remember from my French course that certain adjectives in French precede nouns while others come after the noun. This makes it really hard to parse (and learn). So I wonder how they actually resolve ambiguities. No wonder I am struggling with French.