Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Special Need and Transitive Need: Two Verbs in One!

Posted by Neal on August 3, 2010

Wow, here it is August and it’s almost time for back to school. We got a letter from Doug’s school today, telling us when to drop by the school to pick up his class assignment, and oh, by the way, pay his $30 in school fees, too. Actually, they didn’t need to send that letter. I’ve had that date, and his first day back at school, marked down since the newsletter they sent home on the last day of school in June. But it was still interesting to read the letter. Check out this line:

Enclosed in the assignment packet will be several forms that need your attention and returned during the first week of school.

One sentence with two items of linguistic interest in it!

First, there’s the needs done construction, in forms that need … returned.

Second, there’s the fact that this needs done syntax is part of a coordination: needs your attention and returned. In this verb phrase, needs is acting as an ordinary transitive verb (needs your attention) and as this special needs that takes a past participial verb phrase for a complement (needs returned during the first week of school). Diagrammed out, this VP would be something like this:

The question marks point out the problem with all non-parallel coordinations: If the things being coordinated don’t have to have the same category, how different are the categories allowed to be? Actually, I have a way of doing it so that your attention and returned… do have the same category, but you wouldn’t be interested in seeing that…

What? You say you would? Welllll, oh-kay, you twisted my arm. Here it is:

Here’s how it works: needs has a compound category. One part is VP/NP, which means that it looks for an NP on its right, and when it finds one, forms a VP. (In other words, it’s a transitive verb.) The other part is VP/PastPart, which means that it looks for a past participle on its right, and when it finds one, forms a VP. (Its “special” category.) Meanwhile, via some derivation steps that I didn’t show, your attention is not a mere NP, but something that looks to its left for a verb that has precisely this double category that we’ve given to needs, and when it finds one, forms a VP. Returned, likewise, is looking to its left for a verb with this double category. Now these two words have the same category, so that’s the category of the coordination your attention and returned.

Now at least some of you are probably asking, “Isn’t that phrase just a mistake? Why bother giving it an analysis?” Maybe it is, and maybe it’s not. It may be that this is completely normal syntax for the whoever wrote the letter. If there are any needs done speakers reading this, what do you think of this sentence?

The school faculty also wants us to buy Doug’s official day planner, which they call an agenda, which will be an important communication tool between the parents and teachers, as well as being the place where Doug records all his homework assignments, and doubling as his hall pass. That’s what they said last year, too, but the only reason Doug ever took his planner to school was so that he could get permission to go to the bathroom. Otherwise, it was a waste of paper. I hope they make better use of the agendas this year. But anyway, here’s what the letter said when it brought up the agendas:

School agenda’s will be on sale for $3 each….

Now there’s a mistake!

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8 Responses to “Special Need and Transitive Need: Two Verbs in One!”

  1. Ryan said

    As an undergraduate who’s taken a general intro to ling course, and courses on phonetics, phonology, and some Slavic linguistics, done a minor amount of independent reading, and is preparing for a full year of (morpho-)syntax, I have to confess that I’m a bit perplexed. Is the goal here to expose some sort of psychologically real structure that could reasonably correspond to what the speaker who produces that sentence is doing, or is it merely to preserve the theory and its formalism from data they weren’t exactly designed for?

    • Neal said

      Hopefully the former. That analysis is what I proposed several years ago, when I took it as a given that coordinated elements had the same syntactic category, so back then it was definitely an attempt to get at something psychologically real. Now I’m not so convinced that coordinated elements have to share a category, so these days such an analysis strikes me more as a formalism-preservation maneuver, especially given the kind of overgeneration you get if you don’t constrain the kind of categories you can glue together with the &.

  2. Barrie said

    You could ask whoever wrote it whether it was normal syntax for them. Whether it is or whether it isn’t, it is clearly an ineffective piece of writing in that it forces attention not on what is being said, but on how it is being said.

  3. The Ridger said

    Wouldn’t it be much the same with the Standard “… to be returned” (or even “… returning”), though? As far as the analysis goes, that is? Neither of those is a NP, either.

    • Ran said

      Would you consider those normal? To me they seem awkward at best.

      • The Ridger said

        No, but it seemed to me that some are saying that this analysis is pointless because “needs returned” is substandard. The other two aren’t; it’s the conjoining that’s weird.

    • Neal said

      Right, I get the same zeugmatic effect when I coordinate an NP with an infinitive. This example was just all the more noticeable because it happened with “needs done”.

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