Posted by Neal on June 10, 2011
As I was saying in the last post, last weekend Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s spring campout. This year it was at Flint Ridge State Memorial, a place I’d never heard about before now, but where I learned not only that flint was a sedimentary rock (I’d have guessed metamorphic off the top of my head), but also that the current thinking is that it was formed from crushed and compressed sponges. When we took the tour of the visitor center, the guide mentioned that any flint found at the site had to stay there, and asked why. Adam volunteered that eventually there would be no flint left.
“Right,” the guide said. “If–”
But Adam wasn’t done yet. “And then they’d just have to call it ‘Ridge’.”
At one point during the weekend, a couple other parents and I were sitting in the shade on a picnic table while our scouts practiced making a fire in the 90-degree weather. Fred, the Cubmaster, came over to take a seat, too, but noticed my camera lying on the table. He asked me, “Is this your camera?” I said yes. Moving it aside, he said, “I didn’t want to sit on it.”
Well, that was nice of him. He didn’t want to sit on my camera. But what was the connection between his hesitation to sit on it and the fact that it was mine? I wondered silently if he would he have sat on it if it had been someone else’s camera. More specifically, I thought the words
*Whose camera would you have sat on it if it was __?
I didn’t say it out loud, though, because the syntax was so bad. The meaning was sensible, but it’s difficult or sometimes impossible to make this kind of question in English. This unspoken sentence is an example of something called an island violation. If you consider the sentence to be a piece of land, the wh word or phrase at the beginning of an interrogative or relative clause is sometimes thought of as having been “moved” from its more usual location to the front of the sentence. For example, in Whose camera would you have sat on __?, the wh phrase whose camera has been “moved” from its position as the object of on to the front of the sentence. But there are some constructions that are like islands, surrounded by water that a wh phrase can’t move over in order to get to the front of the sentence. The moved phrase is also sometimes called the filler, and the place it moved from is called the gap.
The island violation in my sentence was the “adjunct island violation”. Adjunct refers to a phrase that modifies another something; in this case, the adverbial clause if it was (whose camera) modifies the clause would you have sat on it. The adverbial clause (i.e. the adjunct) is an island that doesn’t allow whose camera to escape and go to the front of the sentence.
As for why islands exist, linguists still argue. For this one, my impression is that this sentence crashes because you start out parsing it as Whose camera would you have sat on, assuming that whose camera fills in a gap after on, but then comes an it, and you have to look farther and deeper for the gap that whose camera is to fill. But other times, islands do allow things to escape; for example, there’s the subtype of adjunct island called the relative clause island that I discuss in this post.
Trying to think of a workaround phrasing for my sentence, I came up with
Which person X is such that if the camera had belonged to X, you would have sat on it?
Yeah, that works, especially the person X is such that part!
One other highlight from the campout: Adam got his first taste of Spam. He liked it.