Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Doug’s Parasitic Gap

Posted by Neal on February 10, 2009

underwear“Doug,” I said one morning, “You still have to put away this laundry.” He said okay and started with the socks and underwear, since you don’t have to worry about them getting unfolded when you stuff them into a drawer. He kept out one pair of socks, saying:

These, I just won’t put away because I’m gonna wear.

socksA sensible choice. Of course, I have to watch out for that slippery slope. Next he might leave out a pair of pajamas because he’s going to wear them tonight. And then a pair of jeans because he’s going to wear them tomorrow. Before you know it, the piles of folded laundry will become a clothes smorgasbord that lasts the whole week, like the one on the couch in Mom and Dad’s house when I was growing up. Anyway, while Doug put away the rest of his laundry, I had to write down what he said in my memo book: a topicalization with a parasitic gap in a finite clause.

Topicalization is the name for putting at the front of a sentence some phrase that would ordinarily appear later. So instead of the more ordinary I just won’t put these away, we get These, I just won’t put away.

On to the parasitic gap. In order to talk about parasitic gaps, I have to talk about ordinary gaps first. A gap is a place in a phrase where something is missing. So in These, I just won’t put away, there is a gap between put and away, assuming that in an ordinary sentence, that’s where the direct object would go: I just won’t put these away. You know something is missing, because you can’t just say, “I just won’t put away” all by itself; you need a word or phrase saying what isn’t getting put away. (Of course, direct objects can also appear after the away, as in Put away this laundry, but that’s not important for this post.) The piece that’s missing from a gap usually shows up somewhere else in the sentence, where it is sometimes referred to as a filler. In Doug’s example, These is the filler corresponding to the gap in I just won’t put ___ away. Gaps also appear in wh-questions and relative clauses, where the wh word or the relative pronoun act as the fillers for the gaps.

 Fillers and [gaps]
TopicalizationThese, I just won’t put ___ away.
Wh-questionWhat did you put ___ away?
Relative clausethe socks that I put ___ away

A filler can fill more than one gap if you have a conjunction joining two gap-containing phrases, for example, Whose socks did you fold ___ and put ___ away? Each gap would still be OK if it were the only gap in the sentence — Whose socks did you fold ___? Whose socks did you put ___ away?. But what if a filler fills two gaps, one of which wouldn’t be allowed all by itself? For example:

These, I’ll put ___ away without folding ___.

We know the gap after folding isn’t legal all by itself, because look what happens if you fill in the gap in put ___ away:

*These, I’ll put my jeans away without folding ___.

(Actually, this could be grammatical, but only under certain circumstances, most likely involving a weird context. But a description of such a context is going to be a distraction here, so I’ll leave it out and trust that *These, I’ll put my jeans away without folding sounds bad to you, while These, I’ll put away without folding is OK.)

So one characteristic of parasitic gaps is that they owe their existence to the presence of another gap in the clause; hence the name parasitic. The other defining characteristic of parasitic gaps is that they’re optional. So even though we can’t fill in the first gap in our example, we could fill in the second one:

These, I’ll put ___ away without folding them.

So much for what topicalization is and what parasitic gaps are; what about the “in a finite clause” part? Read through the list of other parasitic gaps in this Language Log post by Chris Potts. With the exception of the first one, they all have their parasitic gap in a verb phrase that’s headed by either a gerund (e.g. without folding ___ in our example ) or an infinitive (e.g. to wonder at ___). Syntacticians refer to these as nonfinite verb forms, which means they don’t have a tense. Parasitic gaps of any kind are rare — rare enough for people interested in them to take note when they find them “in the wild”, as Chris Potts did. Within this rare class of constructions, the majority have their parasitic gaps contained in nonfinite verb phrases. Finding one in a finite verb phrase is really unusual, and that’s what we have in Doug’s sentence. In it, the parasitic gap occurs in the finite verb phrase am gonna wear. Depending on how you look at it, this could be strictly a present tense because of the am, or a future tense if you believe be+gonna should be considered a future-tense marker. Either way, though, it has a tense.

After I set Doug to his task, I went to find Adam. “Adam, there’s some laundry for you to put away,” I said.

He fulminated in response: “Awww! There’s too much laundry to put away!” I wanted to tell him, “Hey! You should be glad laundry is something you can just put away without having to wash or fold!

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3 Responses to “Doug’s Parasitic Gap”

  1. [...] Literal-Minded on Heard the Word? The Word Is …Neal on Who May I Ask Is Calling?Doug’s Parasitic Gap « Literal-Minded on Topicalization with Subject and [...]

  2. viola said

    Nice to see my children aren’t the only ones who negotiate and fulminate over their nicely cleaned and folded laundry.

  3. ÷_-/~=*×+#¤¥$¢€£§%&\^| 0 said

    i want those briefs! :(

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