Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What and When?

Posted by Neal on June 9, 2005

The latest story about an ongoing political scandal here in Ohio led off with this sentence in today’s paper:

For the second time in two weeks, a memo has surfaced that contradicts [claims of] what and when Gov. Bob Taft’s office learned about investment losses at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
(“Staff: Taft wasn’t told of losses,” Mark Niquette and Joe Hallett, The Columbus Dispatch, 9 Jun 2005, A1.)

To explain why this sentence caught my eye, I need to back up a bit. It has to do with the fact that the verb learn can be used it several different ways, two of which are relevant here. First, learn can take a direct object followed by an about prepositional phrase, as in:

I learned [something] [about the investigation].

If you wanted to make the direct object the topic of a question, you could say:

[What] did you learn [about the investigation]?

Even though learn isn’t followed by its direct object anymore, the what still fills that position, and learn is still being used with its “learn X about Y” frame. It’s as if there is something missing between learn and about, which shows up as the what at the front of the sentence.

Next, learn can be followed by just an about prepositional phrase, without a direct object, as in:

I learned [about the investigation].

If you wanted to, you could modify this sentence with adverbs:

I learned [about the investigation] {today, from the newspaper, …}

These adverbs could also show up as wh-words, like this:

{When, How, …} did you learn [about the investigation]?

So now, even though learn is next to about, like before, there is no missing direct object we need to imagine there. Learn is still being used with its “learn about Y” frame.

These two versions of learn have slightly different meanings. Both involve new knowledge entering someone’s mind, but the first learn refers to both the general field and the specific thing learned, while the second one refers only to the general field and lets the context provide the specific thing learned. Now we can go back to the opening quotation. Expanded out, the coordinated what and when question would be:

  1. [what] Taft’s office learned [about investment losses], and

  2. when Taft’s office learned [about investment losses]

What I find interesting, then, is that when the what and the when are coordinated in the newspaper quotation, the word learn is uttered only once, and is therefore used with both its “learn X about Y” and its “learn about Y” frames, with their different meanings, at the same time. You can’t decide (in a non-arbitrary way) whether to color the sentence green or blue. Isn’t that weird?

And it’s not just that there’s some rule saying that “Any wh words can be coordinated”; it has to be with a verb that can go with or without a direct object, such as learn. Put in a strictly transitive verb or a strictly intransitive one, or a transitive verb along with its direct object, and the coordination doesn’t work. Even if you didn’t like the what and when coordination with learn, you probably like these even less:

*What and when did get?

*What and when did you sleep?

*What and when did you get the assignment?

It doesn’t work with just any transitive/intransitive verb, either. No matter how hard I’ve tried, I just can’t make Who and when did you shave? mean, “Who did you shave, and when did you shave yourself?”

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One Response to “What and When?”

  1. [...] and More Often A couple of years ago I wrote about a sentence where a verb had to be parsed two ways because of different demands placed on it by two [...]

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