Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Variations on Multiple-Level Coordination

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2009

In the multiple-level coordinations I’ve written about before, the coordinated items (which I’ll call conjuncts) have been two smaller phrases and a bigger one. For example, in

It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks,

the first conjunct is an adjective (sick), the second is an adjective (twisted), and the third is a verb phrase (smells like old socks).

Actually, I’m more inclined to look at this kind of coordination as having a small conjunct between two larger ones. In this example, the first larger conjunct would be not just the adjective sick, but the entire verb phrase [i]s sick. The smaller conjunct is always missing something that appears in an immediately adjacent one; in the sick/twisted example, the small conjunct twisted could be expanded into a verb phrase like the other two by adding the is from the preceding conjunct, like this:

It’s sick, is twisted, and smells like old socks.

Later on I found a slightly different kind of multiple-level coordination, like the one above except that the smaller conjunct’s missing material comes from the conjunct right after it instead of the one right before it. That was the Dark Knight coordination

They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.

The “bigger” conjuncts here aren’t actually bigger than the smaller one, but they are closer to being full verb phrases. They are three passive participial verb phrases — that is, strings of words that, in combination with the be, make a good passive verb phrase: bought, bullied, and negotiated with. The “smaller” conjunct is reasoned, which isn’t quite a participial verb phrase: It’s missing a with. The with, of course, is understood from the last conjunct, negotiated with. One way of phrasing it in a syntactically parallel way would be:

They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned with, or negotiated with.

Now I’ve come across a couple of other variations on MLCs. In all the previous examples, whether the smaller conjunct takes its understood material from the conjunct right before it or right after it, it’s still sandwiched between bigger conjuncts. Not with this one:

I had to promise to do all his chores for a month, give him my braided leather whip and fifteen cents in cash.
(Papa Married a Mormon, John D. Fitzgerald, 1955, p. 196)

In this example, the smaller conjunct comes at the end. The conjuncts are:

  1. a verb phrase: promise to do all his chores for a month
  2. another verb phrase: give him my braided leather whip
  3. a noun phrase: fifteen cents in cash

As with the other examples, though, the missing material in the smaller conjunct is supplied from a neighboring conjunct: give him.

The other variation is multiple-level coordination with correlative conjunctions. From a column I read in the newspaper a couple of months ago:

If they can’t find you these days, you’re either a genius, a hermit or they aren’t looking very hard.
(Leonard Pitts, Jr. column, Sept. 8, 2009)

If it were just You’re a genius, a hermit, or they aren’t looking very hard, it would be just an MLC like many of the other discussed here: The or seems to be joining a clause (You’re … a genius), a noun phrase (a hermit), and then another entire clause (they aren’t looking very hard).

But this sentence has an extra complication: Instead of a coordinating conjunction like and or or linking the (unlike) phrases, it’s a pair of correlative conjunctions: either … or. Without going into messy details, I’ll just say that the first of a pair of correlative conjunctions is often able to appear in places other than right next to its conjunct. You can say, Either you got it or you didn’t, with either and or each right before a clause; or, you can say You either got it or you didn’t and have the same meaning, but with the either pushed inside its clause. So in Pitts’s example, instead of Either you’re a genius, a hermit, or they’re not looking very hard, we get the either pushed into that first conjunct: You’re either a genius…..

I guess there’s nothing really new going on here. Nonparallel structures with correlative conjunctions have been around for years, and so have multiple-level coordinations. This is just the first time I’ve seen them in the same structure.

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5 Responses to “Variations on Multiple-Level Coordination”

  1. I’m not so sure about that first new example: “I had to promise to do all his chores for a month, give him my braided leather whip and fifteen cents in cash.” Or, come to think of it, any of the other examples (though this one is the most straight-forward example of my objection).

    Are you sure that these sentences aren’t really just missing a conjunction?

    [I had to promise to [[do all his chores for a month] (and) [[give him my braided leather whip] and [fifteen cents in cash]]].]

    Again, this seems to me to be the most straight-forward example in support of a simple conjunction addition. The rest need to be finagled a bit more to fit, but it still seems to be possible.

    • Better bracketing to throw into phpSyntaxTree:
      [S [XP I had to promise to ] [VP [VP [VP do ] [NP all his chores for a month ] ] (and) [VP [VP give him ] [NP [NP my braided leather whip ] and [NP fifteen cents in cash ] ] ] ] ]

      (Ignore the XP part. It’s the main VP that explains my point.)

  2. The Ridger said

    Yes, the “give him” one seems different to me. It looks like (particularly with no comma before “fifteen cents”) like the work of someone who just doesn’t use “and” between two verb phrases. “I had to do this, do that…” Since the sentence is in 1P narrative pov and (I’m guessing) that of a child, it seems like an attempt to reproduce conversational run-on sentences.

    The others seem different to me.

  3. r said

    But the best part of all are the ‘traditional’ names for these structures: syllepsis. zeugma. just say ‘em a few times. beautiful.

    • Neal said

      I’m as much a fan of the word zeugma as anyone, but I don’t think these qualify (which is why I didn’t tag them as such). For it to be zeugma/syllepsis, there’d have to be one verb (or perhaps other word) that was construed with all the conjuncts, but with different senses for different conjuncts. In the latest example of multi-level coordination, the part that’s construed with all the conjuncts is had to (assuming you have a good story about the ellipsis of give him in the third conjunct), and it’s the same obligation sense each time.

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