Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Where, When, and How Many?

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2007

I saved a section of the newspaper a year ago because there was a sentence in it I wanted to write about. But I didn’t get around to it right away, and it was of topical interest, so I ended up never doing it. It’s topical again, though, so I picked up the article off my desktop where it’s been sitting all that time, and looked at the sentence again:

They’re all violating ordinances that regulate where, when and how many campaign signs can dot the local landscape.

The 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 acting as a full noun phrase (NP) when you interpret it as part of the where and when questions: That is, it’s the subject in campaign signs dot the landscape. Second, it’s acting as a (compound) noun — not a full NP — when you interpret it as part of the how many question: The subject is not campaign signs, but the phrase consisting of the wh-determiner how many plus campaign signs.

It’s not easy setting up a coordination that allows the same string to act as both a noun and an NP. If you try doing it by, say, coordinating an ordinary adverb and determiner, it sounds really bad:

*Sometimes and my mistakes are overlooked.

In case you couldn’t even parse that sentence, it is supposed to mean, “Sometimes (some) mistakes are overlooked, and (in general) my mistakes are overlooked.” For whatever reason, though, when you coordinate a wh adverb (where, when) with a wh determiner (how many), the result isn’t quite so bad…

…provided you do everything else right, too. For one thing, the double-duty noun/NP has to be the the subject of the sentence (or part of the subject). Look what happens if you try to make it the object:

*…ordinances that regulate where, when and how many campaign signs a candidate can post.

The how many campaign signs a candidate can post is OK, but when you try substituting where or when for how many, you get the ungrammatical *where/when campaign signs a candidate can post.

Also, the noun has to be a plural noun or a mass noun in order to function as a full NP. If we replace the plural campaign signs with its singular (and replace the inherently plural how many with which, which can go with singular nouns) the sentence is no good:

*…ordinances that regulate where, when and which campaign sign can dot the local landscape.

Furthermore, the question has to be an embedded question, so that there’s no subject-auxiliary inversion. If you try to make it a non-embedded question, it’s ungrammatical:

Where, when and how many campaign signs can dot the local landscape?

Once again, the how many part works OK, but *Where/when campaign signs can dot the local landscape? is no good. But when the conditions are just right, we can have the same string be both an NP and not an NP. Isn’t that cool?

Of course, you can also parse the sentence so that campaign signs is exclusively a noun. Instead of taking how many as a wh- determiner, like this:

wh-det.png

…you can take just the how as a wh- adverb (just like where and when), and the many as an ordinary determiner, like this:

wh-adv.png

That parse, however, not only corresponds to a meaning that is clearly not the intended one, but is 3.4 times less interesting than the correct parse.

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One Response to “Where, When, and How Many?”

  1. The Ridger said

    That is cool. Very cool

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