Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Things You Must Do or Suffer the Consequences

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2006

I was listening to some podcasts of NPR’s Science Friday last week, so I could finally clear them off my iPod. The show from February 24 was about the search for extraterrestrial life, and at one point the host, Ira Flatow, asked researcher Margaret Turnbull about how she narrowed down the set of stars to investigate. He put the question this way:

Is there a criteria, you know, a list of things that [a star has to pass __ ] or [it sort of gets eliminated]? (link)

This quotation reminded me of another one I’ve had in my files for a few years:

…Chomsky’s importance as a linguist lies in the fact that he regards the limitless abundance of language its most important property, one that any theory of language must [account for __], or [be discarded].
(Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man, 1982, p. 183)

These quotations are a lot like one from DGM that I wrote about here:

It’s just a bunch of embarrassingly juvenile scratchings about life as a hormonal 15-year old girl, meant only for me to [look back on __ ] and [cringe]….

First, each of the three quotations coordinates two verb phrases or clauses. Second, in each case, the first phrase contains a gap: the clause-minus-direct-object a star has to pass __ in Flatow’s quotation; and the verb-phrases-minus-prepositional-objects account for __ and look back on __ in Campbell’s and DGM’s, respectively. Third, the second coordinated phrase of each quotation does not contain a gap: the clause it sort of gets eliminated in Flatow’s; the VPs be discarded and cringe in Campbell’s and DGM’s. And finally, the non-parallelism of having a gap in the first phrase but not the second is licensed because the ideas expressed by the two are in a Cause-Effect relation. (See the earlier post for more on this analysis, developed by Andy Kehler.)

The relevant syntactic difference between the Flatow and Campbell quotations on one hand and DGM’s on the other is that instead of using an and to coordinate the phrases, Flatow and Campbell use or. And the Cause-Effect relation is correspondingly different: In these examples, it’s the non-occurrence of the event referred to in the first phrase that leads to the event referred to in the second. That is, not meeting the criteria leads to a star’s being eliminated, and not explaining language’s most important property lead’s to a theory’s being discarded. (Note that saying “A or B” is logically equivalent to saying ” if not-A, then B” — which is not quite the same as saying “not-A causes B”, but pretty close.)

What makes the Flatow and Campbell coordinations so interesting is that in all the literature that I’ve read on this kind of non-parallelism, the only examples discussed involve and, never or. But the freshly unearthed or examples fall right into line with the analysis proposed for the and examples.

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3 Responses to “Things You Must Do or Suffer the Consequences”

  1. [...] construction could be parsed a different way. It could also be a relative clause like the one in “things you have to do or suffer the consequences”: She could theoretically meant “persons x such that I want to kill x or die as a consequence [...]

  2. [...] far, though, the only other example I’ve found with or as the conjunction is these two that I blogged about in [...]

  3. [...] involved and. Some, however, involve or, like the one at the beginning of this post, and others here and [...]

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