Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Linguistically Lost

Posted by Neal on October 23, 2006

I’ve run across two unusual chunks of syntax related to the show Lost in the past week. As is often the case on this blog, they involve coordination. First: We’re now three episodes into the new season of Lost, which ended its second season with three characters apparently killed by an explosion destroying the mysterious underground bunker known as the hatch. The disturbance was heard and felt all over the island, and even picked up by two chess-playing Russian dudes in a research station in Antarctica. Last week, we learned that (to give away as little as possible) at least one of these three characters (namely Desmond) survived, when the character Hurley found him naked in the jungle. Desmond described the events at the hatch to Hurley, who asked him:

Is that what made [the blender noise] and [the sky turn purple]?”

Another non-parallelism involving make! But this one is one notch stranger than the ones I’ve written about before:

It makes [my hair big] and [my pits sweat].
They helped him forget what had made [his father sad] and [his mother cry].
It would just make everyone in back of you [ANGRY] AND [WANT TO PULVERIZE YA]!

These all had make taking a noun phrase (NP – i.e., my hair, my pits, his father, his mother, and everyone in back of you) followed by either an adjective phrase (AP – big, sad, angry) or a verb phrase (VP – sweat, cry, want to pulverize you). But despite the difference in syntactic frames (make+NP+AP vs. make+NP+VP), you could argue that make still had basically the same meaning every time. That is, the subject has some effect on the NP, with the subsequent AP or VP telling what the effect is. That happens in Hurley’s utterance, too, in made … the sky turn purple.

In the other part of the utterance, though, the pattern is broken. There, make is used as a simple transitive verb, taking just an NP direct object, and no following AP or VP: made the blender noise. And in this sense, make doesn’t mean to have some effect on something; it means to create it. I won’t argue whether creating something counts as affecting it; even if it does, it’s still different in being a much more specific meaning than having some unspecified effect on something, and requiring an additional phrase to fill in the effect. This snippet of dialogue again raises the question of how different two meanings of a word can be before using both meanings at once results in the funny or merely strange effect of zeugma.

The second item, from James Poniewozik’s article in the October 2 issue of Time, “Why the future of television is Lost“:

The trick was to give away information that [     would tantalize hard-core fans], but [casual viewers wouldn’t need     ].

It’s another relative clause containing two coordinated clauses, one with a subject gap, the other with an object gap, like the ones I wrote about here. In that post, I noted that all the examples thus far had the object gap first and then the subject gap, but now here’s a counterexample. In Poniewozik’s sentence, the clause with the subject gap comes first (    would tantalize hard-core fans), followed the one with the object gap (casual viewers wouldn’t need    ). The sentence sounds OK to me.

On this topic, Szwagier asked in a comment on that other post, “It seems to me that a second that in your last example solves the problem completely. If this is true, then the question is about that-deletion. Is that any help?” He’s right, but I don’t think it helps. If you repeat the that, you have one for the subject gap and one for the object gap, so there’s no double duty required, so there’s no problem. My question is: when you do have this kind of double duty, in what circumstances is it grammatical (or at least, where does it sound less awkward)?

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4 Responses to “Linguistically Lost

  1. Ran said

    There’s another way to parse the second example, and I think this is what Szwagier was getting at: “The trick was to give away information [that _would tantalize hard-core fans], but [casual viewers wouldn’t need _]. By your parsing, there’s a single relative clause with internal coordination, with the relative pronoun “that” playing different roles in the two parts; by this parsing, two distinct relative clauses are being coordinated, one being introduced by “that”, one not. (This is perfectly normal English grammar, though ordinarily I’d expect the second clause to be introduced by “that” as well, even though it’s only necessary in the first clause.)

  2. Neal said

    Oh, you’re right — for some reason that parse never occurred to me. I’ll have to think about whether this changes the question after all.

  3. [...] This kind of coordination sometimes works, but sometimes sounds off. In this example from a post in 2006, it works, with information filling in for the subject of would tantalize, but as the object of [...]

  4. [...] blogged about Lost a couple of times back in 2006. Now, during a second viewing, I’m catching not only foreshadowing and character connections [...]

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