Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

My Multiple-Level Coordination Collection

Posted by Neal on May 16, 2008

When I wrote about gas prices that “are outrageous, ridiculous, and just plain suck,” The Ridger commented:

That’s just like “should not be used by women who are pregnant, nursing, or might become pregnant”, which is all too common.

Right she is! Apparently this particular multiple-level coordination has a high enough profile that it’s making people’s peeve lists.
Ingeborg S. Nordén commented in May 2006:

Here’s another non-parallel coordination that drives me up the wall. I’ve heard it in so many drug commercials that I’d call this a “pharmacist’s coordination”.
[Drug name] is not intended for women who are [nursing], [pregnant], or [may become pregnant].

I included this example in my second post on multiple-level coordinations a couple of months later. I wasn’t going to write more about these coordinations until I had 100 of them, but I’m tired of seeing this draft lying around in my unfinished posts. Here are the examples I’ve collected so far, including those that I’ve written about before.


By far the most common kind of multiple-level coordination consists of a series of verbal complements (direct objects, or complements following the linking verb be) followed by a conjunction, and then, instead of another verbal complement, an entire verb phrase. In other words, we start of as if we’re coordinating elements inside the first VP, and end up as if we’re coordinating two entire VPs. I’m calling these first-order multiple-level coordinations, since they start off coordinating elements at the level just below a VP, and end up coordinating entire VPs. Within this class, the most common kind of coordination has a form of be as the ffirst verb, and then coordinates things that can come after be: noun phrases (aka predicate nominatives), adjective phrases (aka predicate adjectives), or prepositional phrases. In my schematic notation, Pred+ denotes a string of at least one Pred:

Pred+ CONJ VP (first-order)

  1. Most say the gas prices are outrageous, ridiculous and just plain suck. (Tim Doulin, “Going numb, gallon by gallon,” The Columbus Dispatch, May 2, 2008, p. A4)
  2. They were hurt, exhausted, hypothermic, and had no water. (Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival, 2003, p. 208 )
  3. He was exhausted, hypothermic, frostbitten, and had just used his last ice screw. (Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival, 2003, p. 241)
  4. I have been blessed with a mane that’s thick, healthy and like its owner mostly behaves itself.
    (Moata Tamaira, post on Blog Idle)
  5. Hagan said both hotels are reasonably priced, convenient to the Statehouse and have active watering holes. (Jeffrey Sheban, “Legislators hobnobbing at the Hyatt? Hardly.” Columbus Dispatch, Apr. 28, 2008, p. B1)
  6. Thus I often waited twenty-five minutes for a website that was crushingly disappointing, mysteriously defunct, or had absolutely nothing on it. (Lynne Truss, Talk to the Hand, 2005, p. 70)
  7. Those who butt in because they are curious, nosy and feel entitled to the involvement they seek. (link)
  8. The cover letter must be short (less than one page), concise, and deliver a clear picture of what you’re selling. (link)
  9. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried. (from the Apostles’ Creed)
  10. He was hungry, exhausted, cold, and found it hard to believe that any of this would ever change. (Scott Smith, The Ruins, 2006, p. 299)
  11. We are educated, retired and attend many social functions with retired friends….. (link)
  12. I think talking on a cell phone when other people are close by is boorish, inconsiderate, and shows lousy judgment. (link)
  13. To achieve this goal, ratings must be useful, consistent, trustworthy, and align with consumer expectations as closely as possible. (Patricia Vance, “A rating system that meets parents’ needs,” Electronic Gaming Monthly, Apr. 2008, p. 32)
  14. They said they found the survivors of commercial fishing tended to be meek, less active, and carry fewer eggs. (Earthweek, Mar. 1, 2008 )
  15. If you are fidgeting, looking disinterested, or appear smug, viewers won’t like you and won’t be inclined to buy your book. (Marilyn and Tom Ross, Jump Start Your Book Sales, 1999, p. 113)
  16. On physical examination, cats are often depressed, dehydrated, and may show signs of abdominal pain. (Arnold Plotnick, “Bob: The Rubber Band-Eating Cat,” Catnip: The newsletter for caring cat owners, Feb. 2008, p. 10)
  17. Promoting what you adore is easy, natural, and produces fabulous results. (Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman, Author 101: Bestselling Book Publicity, p. 9)
  18. Publishers want authors who are well known, admired, and have followers in their fields. (Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman, Author 101: Bestselling Book Publicity, p. 17)
  19. His Boston terrier is a huge asshole, territorial as hell, and bit Riley in the face. (My sister Ellen)
  20. I am tired, sore, and can’t breathe. (link)
  21. He’s between jobs, living with a niece and has no car to haul his cans to the recycling company. (Kathy Lynn Gray, “OSU-area’s ‘can fairies’ have cleanup in the bag,’ The Columbus Dispatch, 30 Sept 2006, B2)
  22. It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks! (“The Problem with Clones,” episode of Jimmy Neutron)
  23. …for the most part, it was clean, easy to figure out, and worked as advertised. (Brian Bergstein, “Tool helps filter news feeds,” Associated Press, June 26, 2006)
  24. Henry decided he liked best the people who gave them National Geographic, because it was thick, an easy size to handle, and did not slip and slide. (Beverly Cleary, Henry and the Paper Route, p. 119)
  25. [Drug name] is not intended for women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant.
  26. Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus. (Steve Martin, “Grandmother’s Song” from the album Let’s Get Small, 1976?)

The others within this first class are coordinations with a transitive verb as the first verb:

DO+ CONJ VP (first order)

  1. …he had a rolling suitcase, a duffel bag, and was holding onto all of it instead of keeping it on the floor. (link)
  2. Webb … had two doubles, three walks, and scored three times. (Rick Cantu, “Freshman sits in driver’s seat as Longhorns cruise.” Austin American-Statesman, 5 Feb. 1995, E1, E8, cited in Garner’s Modern American Usage, p. 588.)
  3. We haven’t tried training mode, versing mode, or looked at all the items yet. (Doug, Mar. 10, 2008 )
  4. No clothing that promotes alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, violence or is offensive or degrading. (From dress code policy at Doug and Adam’s school)

And here’s one pretty much like the above, except that instead of a transitive verb, we have a verb plus a preposition. You could argue whether to call these first-order or second-order. If you choose the former, you’re discounting the preposition, treating it as nothing more than a kind of case-marker for an oblique object (that is, something that would be a direct object if only you didn’t have to have a preposition before it). If you choose the latter, the claim is that you start at the level of prepositional objects, and skip up past the next level up (PP), and on to the VP level. I’m going with the former option, and calling the coordinated NPs oblique objects:

OblO+ CONJ VP (first order)

  1. If you are calling about cable service, your scheduled appointment, or have a general question, press 1.
    (heard on Mar. 18, 2008 )

The next group of first-order MLCs start off by coordinating entire VPs, and finish at the next level up by throwing in an entire clause:

VP+ CONJ S (first order)

  1. He’s a great guy, has never married, has no children, and I love him dearly. (link)
  2. These cost money, do not guarantee response and most calls come from little stations. (link)
  3. New Guineans with whom I have worked over the past 40 years have matter-of-factly described their cannibalistic practices, have expressed disgust at our Western burial customs of burying relatives without doing them the honor of eating them, and one of my best New Guinean workers quit his job with me in 1965 in order to partake in the consumption of his recently deceased prospective son-in-law. (Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, p. 151)
  4. In Greenland’s cold and intermittently wet climate, trees are small, grow only locally, and their timber deteriorates quickly>…. (Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, p. 217)
  5. The Panguna mine was of course closed down, has no prospect of reopining, and the owners and lenders … lost their investment. (Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, p. 454)

The last of our first-order MLCs starts off inside an adverbial prepositional phrase, coordinating objects of the preposition at , but end up at the next level up by finishing with an adverbial when clause:

AdvPrepObj+ CONJ AdvP (first order)

  1. You have to be quiet at church, libraries, hospitals, and when Mommy’s on the phone.
    (Family Circus comic, Mar. 21, 2008 )

Now we come to second-order MLCs. First up are coordinations that begin with a series of verbal complements, specifically predicate adjectives, but instead of finishing up with an entire VP, these coordinations skip right past that level and finish with a full clause:

Pred+ CONJ S (second order)

  1. I’m gray, wrinkled, and I have a trunk. (political cartoon by Ramirez, Investor’s Business Daily, Feb. 2, 2008 )
  2. They were clean, professional, and our house looks brand new. (TV commercial for painters, heard May 9, 2008 )

This next one is like the previous two, but instead of coordinating complements of be, it starts off coordinating complements of the verb know, i.e. the embedded questions what they want and when they’re coming to get it. The final conjunct is not another embedded question, nor is it an entire verb phrase such as can do something about it, but rather an entire clause:

EmbedQ+ CONJ S (second order)

  1. For the first time we know what they want, when they’re coming to get it, and they have no idea. (Jack on Lost, “Past, Present, and Future”, aired Jan. 31 2008 )

This one starts off coordinating NP objects of the preposition from. The final conjunct is not another object of from — well, under the funny reading of “everyone from Pat Robertson” it is, but not under the intended reading. Nor is it another prepositional phrase; instead, coming in at the next level up, it’s another NP, Pat Robertson:

PrepObj+ CONJ NP (second order)

  1. I think everyone from Pennsylvania, Kansas and Pat Robertson should see this. (link)

In this next example, we start off coordinating passive participial phrases, complements to the auxiliary been, i.e. checked in…, IV’d, induced, and epiduraled. After the and, however, we get not another passive participial phrase, but a past active one, started the pushing process, a complement not of the been, but of the had at the next level up:

PastPasPartP+ CONJ PastActPartP (second order)

  1. Lala had been checked in many hours before, IV’d, induced, epiduraled, and started the pushing process, and we were getting nowhere. (Robert Wilder, Daddy Needs a Drink, 2006, p. 63)

Our last example sets the record for number of levels jumped. It starts off by coordinating VPs: hit an iceberg… and sunk (should be sank, but nevermind that). After the and we do, in fact, get another VP, but it’s not a VP whose subject is a ship (though in Geoff Pullum’s original post on this sentence, he gets all literal-minded on us and insists on interpreting it that way). Nor, at the next level up, is it another relative clause, such as that people talk about to this day. Nor, two levels up, is it another NP to go with a ship. Nor, three levels up, is it another predicative phrase to go with the been, such as rescued by …. No, we have to go four levels up to get to the level of the last coordinated item: It’s another participial verb phrase to go with the have, namely lived to tell the tale:

VP+ CONJ PartP (fourth order)

  1. How many people have been on a ship that hit an iceberg in the middle of the night, sunk, and lived to tell the tale? (link)

Overall observations:

  • 86% of these multiple-level coordinations are first-order.
  • Once the coordination pops up a level, it doesn’t pop down again.
  • In fact, once it pops up, it quickly ends.

John Beavers and Ivan Sag have a paper on coordination where they bring up multiple-level coordinations as proof that coordinated elements do not have to have the same syntactic category, and use such coordinations as part of the motivation for their analysis. Thus, they seem to imply that their analysis will cover these coordinations. Strangely, it won’t, although it does cover several other kinds of coordination. Beaver and Sag’s analysis would take Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus as an underlying Be pompous, be obese, and be eat cactus, with all but the first be elided.

More examples? Other patterns in the data? Comments are open.

Update, May 12, 2008: I think you are intelligent, witty and it’s great to be able to start the dreaded work day with a bit of humour and thought. (link) Pred+ CONJ S (third-order)

Update, May 22, 2008:
Ok, I will add cream to my coffee after its expired, freely employ the five-second-rule with dropped tenderloin while cooking, and I just learned from the internet that it’s not a good idea to make egg salad with Easter eggs that have been sitting out a few days…. (link) VP+ CONJ S (first-order)
Our final candidate was well groomed, well dressed in a nice suit, and carried a briefcase. (link) Pred+ CONJ VP (first-order)

Update, May 30, 2008:
Leave your name, number, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible (heard on a contractor’s voice mail) NP+ CONJ S (third-order)
I have a relative who is spoiled, immature, disrespectful to her parents and has done nothing productive in her life. (letter to Dear Abby, May 30, 2008 ) Pred+ CONJ VP (first-order)

Update, June 16, 2008:
With a big happy grin on his face he carried a big armful of kindling wood from our woodshed, up the steps, into the kitchen and dumped it into the wood box by the kitchen range. (John D. Fitzgerald, The Great Brain, 1969, p. 164)PP+ CONJ VP (second-order)

Update, July 16, 2008:
Fer-de-lances are extremely aggressive, very venomous, and there’s no known antidote for their venom. (Doug Whitman, ~July 10, 2008) Pred+ CONJ S (second-order)

Update, Aug. 5, 2008:
A U-shaped driveway is unnecessary, unsafe and would utterly destroy the positive aesthetic of the front of the Whetstone Library and Recreation Center. (Jane Butler, letter to the editor, Columbus Dispatch, Aug. 5, 2008) Pred+ CONJ VP (first-order)

Update, Aug. 20, 2008:
He’s shallow, insecure, and needs to buy friends with laughter. (Fozzie Bear, Season 3 of The Muppet Show, Raquel Welch episode) Pred+ CONJ VP (first-order)

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8 Responses to “My Multiple-Level Coordination Collection”

  1. Beavers and Sag’s analysis IS capable of handling an example like “Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus”. Notice that they assume a right-branching, strictly binary-branching structure for coordinate structure. The string in question can thus be generated by combining “be pompous” and “be obese and eat cactus”; the word “be” at the beginning of the latter could be deleted because it’s identical with the material at the beginning of the former.

  2. Neal said

    Shuichi:
    OK, I’ve now read the paper more thoroughly, and I see that B&S’s analysis can generate be pompous, be obese, and eat cactus as ordinary constituent coordination, and get from there to be pompous, obese, and eat cactus. I was confused because the second be is deleted not because it’s the [A] or [D] part of their spotlighted schema in (19), but just because (as you say) it’s deletion of identical material. But shoot, I could have said that much myself! Where are the rules constraining this kind of deletion? (Maybe they’re well known already.)

    Not directly relevant, but I also wonder what B&S’s analysis would do with non-Boolean coordination (He and I met, etc.), since this analysis seems to treat all kinds of coordination as conjunction of propositions.

  3. Neal,

    I’m not quite sure but there still seems to be a little misunderstanding. The “be” that gets deleted in this example corresponds to the [A] part of the schema in (19), in a sense. The illustration in (19) shows a structure in which the same things (A and D) keep getting deleted at each successive node, but this is just an illustration of one kind of structure that could be generated by the proposed grammar. According to the actual rule (“construct”) stated in (27), what gets deleted could differ from node to node, yielding what you call multiple-level coordination. For instance, “be pompous, obese, and eat cactus” could be generated by
    (i) deleting nothing when combining “be obese” and “and eat cactus” (thus producing “be obese and eat cactus”), and
    (ii) deleting “be” at the beginning of the second daughter when combining “be pompous” and “be obese and eat cactus”).

    I don’t know if this is the right analysis of this sort of thing, but their proposal does seem to work, without any hidden trick.

    Also, (27) doesn’t impose much of a constraint on the syntactic category of each conjunct, so it will sanction NP coordination, as well as S coordination.

  4. Neal said

    Shuichi,
    Thanks for the clarification of the schema. I took another look at my derivation and was finally able to generate be pompous, obese, and eat cactus. So B&S’s analysis stands as the only one to my knowledge that will generate multiple-level coordinations. It also predicts that such coordinations should be possible in other languages, too. Do multiple-level coordinations occur in Japanese? I now invite speakers of other languages than English to submit multiple-level coordination from those languages.

  5. Neal,
    I don’t know if multiple-level coordinations occur in Japanese. Quirks of Japanese syntax (including the fact that pretty much any noun phrase could be omitted in the language) seem to prevent me from settling the issue, unfortunately.

  6. Surah said

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Surah.

  7. [...] Despite these differences, I was pleased to find an off-the-shelf analysis that generates this kind of coordination using the same general template that generates several other kinds of coordinations. What is it? you ask. That’ll have to go in the next post or two, since this one’s getting kind of long. Don’t worry, I’ll get to work on it right now, while I’m still thinking about the analysis, so you’ll lose as little sleep as possible. But if you can’t wait, you can get it straight from the original source, the Beavers & Sag 2004 paper I mentioned in the last post on multiple-level coordinations. [...]

  8. laurie said

    Under item 36, VP+CONJS, one reads this: ‘The Panguna mine was of course closed down, has no prospect of reopining, and the owners and lenders…’ Does the mine have the intention of giving its opinion again? Lol. Other than that, I basically have no idea what you’re talking about, only that it’s amazing we can just know when something.s amiss in its phrasing but can.t explain why. Thank you for your clarification!

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