Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What I Want

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2011

Back in March, I blogged about an ambiguity in a line in a Garth Brooks song: What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. One reading was the “specificational” reading, which I paraphrased like this:

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart.

The other was the “predicational” reading:

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart.

Commenters Glen and ran had some questions about possible other readings, and I responded in a comment:

It occurred to me that since we’re talking about two ways of parsing two different things (the be, the wh clause), we should be able to construct four kinds of sentences. I’m going to lay these out more clearly in my next post, and situate the two (or more?) readings of this sentence in that framework.

Several posts later, this is that “next post”. I’ll start with the two meanings of be. Predicational be takes its subject and declares it to be in some set of things. For example, in Osama bin Laden is dead, the is declares Osama bin Laden to be in the set of things that are dead. The be in progressive tenses is a kind of predicational be. For example, in Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan, the was declares Osama bin Laden to have been in the set of things that live in Pakistan.

Specificational be, on the other hand, takes its subject and equates it with its complement. For example, in Osama bin Laden was the leader of Al-Qaeda, the was equates two things: Osama bin Laden, and the leader of Al Qaeda (at a time in the past, of course). One property of specificational be is that it lets you reverse its subject and complement. Thus, you can also say The leader of Al-Qaeda was Osama bin Laden. You can’t typically do this with predicational be: Note the badness of ?Dead is Osama bin Laden, barring some kind of poetic register.

Now I’ll take up the two kinds of wh clauses. A wh clause such as what I want could be an indirect question, as in He’s asking what I want. In this sentence, what I want has whatever meaning you give to questions. (Many semanticists take it to be the set of propositions that could answer that question: {“I want money”, “I want a new car”, “I want another Everlasting Gobstopper”,…}) You could paraphrase this sentence as He’s asking the question of what I want.

The wh clause could also be a fused relative, as in They’re out of what I want. In this case, what I want refers to a particular thing, such as Everlasting Gobstoppers. You could paraphrase this sentence as They’re out of the thing that I want.

So with the ambiguity between predicational and specificational be, plus the ambiguity between indirect questions and fused relatives, we should be able to get four kinds of meaning for a sentence with a wh clause for a subject and be for a verb.

  1. Predicational be, indirect question for subject

    An example of this combination would be:

    What I want isn’t relevant to the discussion.

    In this sentence, we know that what I want is an indirect question because you can paraphrase it as The question of what I want isn’t relevant….. Also, you can’t (at least, not very easily) paraphrase it as *The thing that I want isn’t relevant to the discussion. This sentence is using predicational be: It states that (the question of) what I want is in the set of things that are not relevant. Before I move on to the next combination, I’ll modify the sentence to have predicational be in a progressive tense:

    (The question of) what we should do is bothering me.

    Note the non-reversibility of subjects and complements here: ?Not relevant to the discussion is what I want, ?Bothering me is (the question of) what we should do.

    This combination of predicational be and an indirect question subject corresponds to a reading I didn’t think of for What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. It’s the one suggested by my brother Glen: that the topic (or question) of what she’s doing now is a painful one.

  2. Predicational be, fused relative for subject

    I’ll take the first example sentence, and replace the adjective phrase relevant to the discussion with something that is more appropriate for a concrete entity:

    What I want is expensive.

    Now what I want is a fused relative. You can replace it with The thing that I want, but not with The question of what I want. We have predicational is placing the thing that I want in the set of things that are expensive. And now for this combination with predicational be in a progressive tense:

    What I eat is clogging my arteries.

    Final evidence that this is predicational be is the non-reversibility of the subjects and complements: ?Expensive is what I want, ?Clogging my arteries is what I eat.

    This combination of predicational be and a fused relative subject was what I called the predicational meaning of What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart.

  3. Specificational be, indirect question subject

    For this combination, I’m going to use two indirect questions, one of them a where question, just to highlight that these wh clauses are not referring to individual entities.

    {What you want / Where we should go} is the question before us.

    We can tell that the wh clauses are indirect questions because we can replace them with The question of {what you want / where we should go}, and we cannot replace them with the thing that you want or *the thing that we should go (which is not even syntactically well-formed). Specificational is equates these questions with the question before us. Note the reversibility this time: The question before us is {what you want / where we should go}.

    This combination of specificational be and an indirect question doesn’t correspond to any of the meanings proposed for What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. It would mean something like, “The question of what she’s now doing consists of the activity of tearing me apart,” which makes no sense. It was so hard for me to construct that meaning just now that it’s no wonder I didn’t identify it back then.

  4. Specificational be, fused relative subject

    The combination of specificational be and a fused relative subject has, through other channels, acquired its own special name in the field of syntax: pseudo-cleft. An example:

    What I want is money.

    Because What I want is a fused relative, we can replace it with The thing that I want; we cannot replace it with The question of what I want, at least not sensibly. We can see that the is is specificational, as it identifies the thing I want as money. Note also the reversibility: Money is what I want.

    This last combination corresponds to what I called the specificational meaning of What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart.

So there they are, all four possible interpretations of a wh clause subject with be. It is so darn tricky to sort out all these meanings that I’m almost tempted to go Whorfian, and say that because of this ambiguity our English syntax has set up for us, it’s harder for us to talk about these distinctions. Even when you set about disambiguating them, making an unambiguous paraphrase is pretty tough. I’d be interested in hearing from speakers of languages in which predicational and specificational be are different words, and/or indirect questions and fused relatives have different syntax. Do you have a hard time keeping these meanings straight?

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6 Responses to “What I Want”

  1. What would you do with “What I want is what I get”?

    Meaning “whatever I want, I get/I get whatever I want.”

    You definitely can’t replace with “the question of what.” And “the thing I want” isn’t a great fit either (though closer).

    • Neal said

      What I want and what I get are both free relatives here. That means the is is equating one thing with another, so it’s specificational. As you point out, you can’t replace either free relative with the question of what…. Since the thing that I want/get doesn’t fit that well, just make it the stuff that I want/get or the thingS that I want/get. The main thing is to phrase it in such a way that it has to refer to entities, not to an abstract thing like the meaning of a question.

      • Glen said

        I think Tom may be onto something different here. Neither wh-clause is an indirect question (“the question of what I want/get”). But neither one is referring to a particular thing, like money or women, either. Instead, the claim is that *whatever* I want, I get. So the wh-clauses have an open-endedness to them.

  2. another mouse said

    At the moment, I’m not seeing the ambiguity I think you’re trying to point out. But then I’m tired right now and kinda new to this grammar stuff. Though, I do see ambiguity in your example sentence, but it is on something different.

    Let me attempt to explain what I think I’m seeing in your example sentence when I initially look at it. … I’ll probably be misusing all those grammar terms, sorry. :( … (Also remember I’ve been up way too long.)

    Your example sentence: What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart.

    What I am seeing is ambiguity due to the “now,” since it can squint both ways. For instance, one possibility is that she has just changed what she was doing, and now, that new activity of hers is tearing me apart. Another possibility is that she has been doing the same activity all along, but for some reason, that activity is now tearing me apart (but for that interpretation, I’d usually be expecting the “now” to be located after the “is” — i.e., “is now tearing” — but perhaps better is for the “now” to be located at the end of the sentence). … (Though, my logic might be faulty.)

    If the “now is removed (and the missing letters put back in), then: What she’s doing is tearing me apart.
    then I’m seeing just one meaning: X is Y.
    Where X perhaps could be thought of as a fused determiner NP with a modifying clause–“What she’s doing”
    Where Y perhaps could be thought of as a subordinate clause that is functioning predicatively–“tearing me apart”

    This example sentence can have its complements switched, “Y is X”, i.e., Tearing me apart is what she’s doing.
    (Also, the “now” can be stuck into either X or Y.)

    So, I guess I’m only able to see just one of your four interpretations at this time. … Later, I’ll try to get back to read more carefully what you’re saying in your post, hopefully after I’ve gotten some sleep and rest. And try to see those four different interpretations that you’re pointing out. :)

    (Hopefully, I didn’t mess up too badly in my post.)

  3. [...] that I explored had to do with the predicational and specificational meanings of be. As I wrote in this post a few months ago, Predicational be takes its subject and declares it to be in some set of things. [...]

  4. [...] can also read about pseudo-clefts in a wider context in this post. Anyway, this pseudo-cleft construction heightens the weirdness of the zeugma, because it’s [...]

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