Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The What and How of Self-Promotion

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2005

I know, I know: You’ve been wanting to read my dissertation, but didn’t want to download it and have to print it out or view it on a computer screen. Well, the wait is over. It has been published by Routledge, and a handsomely bound, hardcover edition of my contribution to the literature can now be yours. It’s available here (discounted), here, or from the publisher itself. It’s tastefully done, too–the f-word appears on only one page (215), and even there it’s in a quoted title.

This seems like a good time to do a post or two about some of the topics I covered in my dissertation. One of them came up just last week in a book I was reading, specifically in this sentence:

Every company has its own idea of what and how information should appear….
Richard Curtis, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, p. 116.

Is that sentence a little odd for you? It is for me, in the coordination of what and how. I’ll expand out the coordination so that each of these words heads up its own question:

Every company has its own idea of:

  • what information should appear
  • how information should appear

In the what question, information is used as a noun. You can substitute other nouns for it and still have a syntactically well-formed sentence: what person should appear, what item should appear, etc.

In the how question, however, information draws on its powers as a mass noun (see previous post) to function not as a mere noun, but as a complete noun phrase! If you try to substitute an ordinary noun into this question, it won’t work: *how person should appear, *how item should appear, etc. By contrast, if you substitute a noun phrase for information, it works just fine: how the report should appear, how Kim should appear, etc.

Therefore, in the coordinated what-and-how sentence earlier, information is used simultaneously as a noun and a noun phrase. That’s pretty weird, especially being as how nouns and noun phrases are typically viewed as having different semantic types (predicates and individuals, respectively). Conventional wisdom has been that words (or phrases) can’t be used with more than one semantic type at a time–at least, not outside of puns. So is the quotation from Richard Curtis a mistake, or is it actually generated in his (and maybe other people’s) grammar? Corpus linguistic and experimental research on this kind (and other kinds) of “mixed-wh interrogative” is presented in Chapter 3 of my dissertation. Own it today!

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3 Responses to “The What and How of Self-Promotion”

  1. [...] coordination of where, when, and how many is like a couple of coordinations I wrote about back in 2005. What’s interesting is that campaign signs is doing two jobs. First, it’s [...]

  2. The Ridger said

    It just came and it looks extremely interesting! (Just thought I’d let you know you sold at least one copy with this post :-)

  3. Neal said

    Cool! Now my sales rank is 461,035 on Barnes & Noble!

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