Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

RNWs: Theory and Evidence

Posted by Neal on March 28, 2009

"Written by some of the leading scholars in the field" ... and me!

This month, my categorial-grammar analysis of right-node wrapping (RNW, aka “Friends in Low Places” coordinations) was published in Theory and Evidence in Semantics, a book edited by Erhard Hinrichs and John Nerbonne. Here’s what Nerbonne says about the article in the book’s introduction:

Neal Whitman’s piece “Right-Node Wrapping: Multimodal Categorial Grammar and the ‘Friends in Low Places’ Coordination” appears to describe a novel sort of construction, which he christens right-node wrapping. These coordinations have the form [A conjunction B] C D and are understood as if the element C were distributed over both sides of the conjunction, while the element D is interpreted only with respect to the second conjunct. Whitman offers the following example from the Los Angeles Times, 16 Oct. 2003:

(9) The blast [upended] and [nearly sliced] a [...] Chevrolet in half.

The bracketed phrases are the conjuncts A and B, a Chevrolet is the distributed object C, while the underscored in half is understood solely in combination with the likewise underscored second verb sliced, and crucially not with the first conjunct upended. Whitman provides a long list of examples from actual use, demonstrating the existence of the construction, in spite of the suspicion which Whitman himself confesses to having felt when he first encountered it. Coordination has been studied intensively in several grammatical frameworks, and especially within categorial grammar, so that it is surprising to see a new sort of coordination discovered, even more so one which is readily instantiated in newspaper prose (and elsewhere).

Whitman’s work is a clear continuation of other work on coordination in categorial grammar, most specifically work on non-constituent coordination, the earliest examples of which we are aware of being Dowty (1988) and Steedman (1985, 1990). Dowty (1988) based his account of non-constituent coordination on functional composition and type raising. In a sentence such as (10), the objects Mary and Bill are first raised from the type NP to the type (VP/NP)\VP which then compose leftwardly with the VP\VP-category adverbs yesterday and today:

(10) John saw [Mary yesterday] and [Bill today].

This paves the way for straightforward cancellation with respect to the VP/NP transitive verb saw and the subject.

Whitman formalizes his analysis within multi-modal categorial grammar, using a Gentzen-style rule system with an accompanying semantics. It turns out that it is sufficient to add a single rule of “mixed associativity”, which is assumed not to be universal, but rather specific for English. The author contrasts this with an alternative analysis which makes uses of a unary constructor. Although both analyses cover a good deal of the data, Whitman notes some overgeneration in both analyses, as well as undergeneration of data with respect to the first.

The “long list of examples from actual use” was compiled from the various posts on RNWs. I was disappointed to find — some weeks after submitting the final draft — that I’d left out one of my favorite examples because I had neglected to put a “‘Friends in Low Places’ coordination” tag on the relevant post, and missed it during my blog search. So if you read the article, you won’t see this grimly fascinating RNW in it:

Alternatively, infanticide was carried out by [burying alive], [smothering], or [turning a newborn infant on its face].
(Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005, p. 290)

Then there are the RNWs that I only found in the first place after submitting the final draft, like the one about Victoria Beckham’s dress, or the one about Abu Ghraib. In addition to those, there’s also this handful of attestations that I’ve had accumulating for a while:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which manages the FHA, has [fined], [sued], and even [removed some of the rogue lenders from the program], but they keep coming back. (Froma Harrop, column of Jan. 7, 2009)
  • Until and unless we find it in ourselves to [confront] and [roll that culture back], our inner cities will remained blighted places …. (Leonard Pitts, Jr., column of Feb. 7. 2009)
  • [Wash] and [put wet lettuce/vegetables directly into Salad Sac]. (Instructions on a terrycloth bag to hold your salad. A Christmas present from Mom and Dad!)
  • With the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, players can [collect], [trade] and even [take their dinosaurs into battle with friends to see who will become the ultimate Dinosaur King]! (Product description for Dino-King video game.)
  • [Color], [cut out], and [mount game cards on tagboard]. (Instructions in a book of do-it-yourself games for teachers. I saw it when I was visiting Adam’s classroom.)
  • You don’t [owe] or [have to pay anything back] at the end of the problem. (Answer to the riddle “Why is borrowing a good thing in math?” on one of Doug’s worksheets.)

In addition to the above examples, here are a couple that Ben Zimmer noticed and sent to me last fall:

  • DeCroce said the people of New Jersey would be better served if Gov. Corzine actually stayed in the state long enough to deal with the state’s economic problems instead of traveling around the country and doing the TV talk show circuit “alternately [praising] and [begging President-elect Obama for money].” (link)
  • Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Morris) said Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) alternately [threatened] and [tempted him with state grant money] in an effort to halt a Republican hunt for documents that would expose how state funds were really being doled out by ruling Democrats. (link)

Thanks, Ben! I especially like the last one: “He threatened me with state grant money!”

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to get my author’s copy of Theory and Evidence in Semantics. There’s stuff in there by Chris Barker, Erhard Hinrichs, Jack Hoeksema, Pauline Jacobson, Manfred Krifka, Peter Lasersohn, John Nerbonne, Craige Roberts, and Greg Stump that I want to read. It’s supposed to be here by now!

UPDATE, Apr. 5, 2009: I’ve now received my copy. Looking at my own paper with fresh eyes, I see that I wrote on p. 248 that one drawback of my analysis is that it would generate sentences like *John [put away] and [got the dishes back out], where both verbs (not just the second one) are phrasal verbs. I said, “[I]n the years in which I have been hyperaware of RNW coordinations, I have yet to hear one with this pattern.” Except, of course, for the example on p. 239: Hey, Dad, can you [bring over] and [squirt some ketchup on my plate]? That’s what I get for putting in last minute examples. Oh well, at least what I thought was an overgeneration problem might not be one after all.

I also pointed out two examples on p. 240 in which the shared direct object was an unstressed pronoun (specifically them). My point was that these direct objects therefore had to split up the phrasal verb they appeared in, and could not conceivably be moved out to make the coordinated verb phrases nice and parallel. For some reason, I neglected to make the same observation about the example killing or allowing them to die from the previous page.

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5 Responses to “RNWs: Theory and Evidence”

  1. The Ridger said

    Looks like a good book. I ordered it – wonder if mine will get here before yours gets to you?

  2. Glen said

    I’m not sure this is necessarily a RNW:

    “Alternatively, infanticide was carried out by [burying alive], [smothering], or [turning a newborn infant on its face].”

    It seems like the first two coordinated elements (burying alive and smothering) could have been understood as intransitive. In other words, you could parse the sentence as:

    (1) infanticide was carried out by burying alive;
    (2) infanticide was carried out by smothering; and
    (3) infanticide was carried out by turning a newborn infant on its face.

    Now, (1) might sound a little odd, but it would sound odd even with the object: “burying alive the infant” instead of “burying the infant alive.”

  3. The Ridger said

    Mine got here!

  4. Now that just ain’t right!

  5. viola said

    Neat! You’ll have to tell me sometime about how the FLoP (Phrase coined by you, correct?) came from right-node wrapping.

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