Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Two MLCs in Ten Minutes

Posted by Neal on December 14, 2009

Listening to NPR as I drove Doug and Adam to school this morning, I heard someone talking about the Hyde Amendment. He mentioned the usual restrictions on how federal funds should be limited in paying for abortions: They shouldn’t pay for abortions “unless the pregnancy is a result of rape –“

Or incest, I thought, or … oh! I smell an imminent multiple-level coordination! I waited, and was rewarded with:

…unless the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest, or the mother’s life is in danger.

Clause: the pregnancy is a result of rape. Noun phrase (with material from preceding clause understood to turn it into a full clause): [the pregnancy is a result of] incest. Clause: the mother’s life is in danger.

I turned onto the side street, pulled into the school parking lot, and let Doug out. I’d scarcely driven two blocks away when I heard someone say during a story on the No Child Left Behind Act, “A teacher must have a college degree, a license to teach –“

I sense another MLC coming up, I thought. Right again:

A teacher must have a college degree, a license to teach, and be competent in the subject.

Verb phrase: have a college degree. Noun phrase (with material from preceding VP understood to turn it into a VP): [have] a license to teach. Verb phrase: be competent in the subject.

How about that? Two MLCs in less than ten minutes. Not only that, we have some nice variety. One of them has or for a conjunction, while the other has and. These pop up so often and in such smooth speech that I am even more convinced that they’re not errors, but something generated by speakers’ ordinary rules of coordination syntax. What would be interesting to find out would be how (or whether) the MLCs that draw the ire of grammarians differ from the ones that go under their radar.

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One Response to “Two MLCs in Ten Minutes”

  1. The Ridger said

    There must be an internal coordination going on. Most of these I don’t even notice – I did notice “women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant”, but only after hearing it (I’m sure) thousands of times.

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