Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

She Drew Her Gun and Shot Her Lover Down

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2010

For the second of my grammar-intensive posts leading up to National Grammar Day tomorrow, I’ll get into some syntax. In particular, the syntax of coordination, and in even more particular, the syntax of nonparallel coordination. Regular readers know I tend to write about this quite a lot — enough for it to have its own category with several subcategories. Some kinds of nonparallel coordinations are just plain sloppy, and don’t belong in formal writing, but other kinds are just fine. The ones I have today I think are more on the “just fine” side, but I’ll be interested in hearing how they sound to readers.

Cole Porter

First up, one from Cole Porter:

From under her velvet gown, she drew her gun and shot her lover down.
(“Miss Otis Regrets”, Cole Porter, 1934)

What we have here would be an ordinary coordination of two werb phrases (VPs): drew her gun and shot her lover down. There’s a complication, though. The VP drew her gun is actually part of a larger VP, drew her gun from under her velvet gown. Instead of appearing in this typical position for an adverb, though, the adverbial PP from under her velvet gown has been put at the front of the sentence, before the subject she. (In syntactic terms, it’s been topicalized.) If drew her gun from under her velvet gown were the only VP in the sentence, there’d be nothing more to say. We’d just have

From under her velvet gown, she drew her gun.

The prepositional phrase From under her velvet gown, from its perch at the front of the sentence, can look down (as it were) and modify the entire rest of the sentence.

But there’s another VP: shot her lover down. It’s coordinated with drew her gun, and that compound VP goes with the single subject She. Now, though, we have From under her velvet gown at the front of the sentence — she drew her gun and shot her lover down — in position to scope over the whole thing, but actually just reaching in and scoping over just one of the two VPs inside the sentence: drew her gun. At least, that’s what I assume Porter had in mind. You can draw a gun from under your velvet gown, but you can’t shoot your lover from under your velvet gown. Unless instead of wearing it, you’re hiding under it or something.

In this respect, this coordination is a lot like Down came Santa and filled the stockings, where Down modifies only came. The only structural difference between the two sentences is whether the subject comes before or after the first verb: came Santa vs. Santa came.

Next nonparallel coordination:

Your pants you can get out of the pile of clean pants and put the others away.

That was me talking to Adam about a year ago, one move in my continuing campaign to make sure that he and Doug put away their clean laundry instead of using it as a pile from which to select their clothes for the week. Again, this is essentially a coordination of two VPs: get your pants out of the pile of clean pants and put the others away. The subject of both VPs is you; also scoping over both is the modal can. But lifted out of just one VP to come before the you can is the first VP’s direct object your pants.

I think I’ll call this kind of non-parallel coordination narrow-scoping topicalization.

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One Response to “She Drew Her Gun and Shot Her Lover Down”

  1. [...] Neal on March 4, 2010 And now for a semantics-focused post on National Grammar Day. Actually, my syntax-focused post was drifting into semantics territory, when I talked about the likely and unlikely intended [...]

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