Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Whose Camera…?

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.

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18 Responses to “Whose Camera…?”

  1. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    I’m not so sure about your need for the island-violating sentence, nor about your attempted workaround.

    First, I offer this sentence:
    “Whose camera would you have sat on __?” (with possible emphasis on the would)

    Surely that would give the same result?

    As for your workaround, I’m not sure it’s unambiguous to me that the “it” corefers with “the camera”; given how many times you mention person X, there is at least some propensity for it to also refer to person X. Perhaps changing it to that or that camera would alleviate this issue.

    • Neal said

      No, not the same meaning. Your reformulation is asking about cameras. I wasn’t asking which cameras Fred was willing to sit on. I was wondering about conditions under which he would have sat on that specific Nikon DX that was sitting on the table, those conditions being who it belonged to.

      As for the person X workaround, I still have a hard time letting it refer to a person, but your rewording would certainly remove that possible misinterpretation.

      • Gordon P. Hemsley said

        Hang on, I’m confused. Let me talk me through this. :)

        X = the camera Fred was going to sit on
        Y = your camera

        The context:
        There was an X. Fred did not want to sit on Y. Thus, he asked if X = Y. Since X = Y, Fred did not sit on X. (And, by extension, Fred did not sit on Y.)

        My question:
        For what values of X would Fred sit on X?

        Your question:
        For what owners of X would Fred sit on X?

        Is that right? Your question was asking about the people, and my question was asking about the cameras? Is that what you’re saying? (If so, I’m not sure I agree with that, but I can’t argue unless I know what it is we’re talking about….)

      • Neal said

        I agree with your formulation of my question, but for the context, I’d say, “There was an X. Fred did not want to sit on X if X belonged to Neal.”

      • OK, so the context is:
        There was an X. Fred did not want to sit on X if X belonged to Neal. But if X did not belong to Neal, whether Fred did or not want to sit on X is undefined/unknown.

        Let’s try it this way:
        f = Fred
        x = the camera
        y = the owner of x
        S( f, x, y ) = y is the owner of x such that f would want to sit on x

        We already know that that S( f, x, y ) is False when y = Neal (and x = the particular Nikon DX in question).

        So, your question is:
        For what values of y [other than y = Neal] would S( f, x, y ) be True?

        Is that right? Because, if it is, I’m not seeing the difference between your question and mine. :/

        Unless you’re saying that your (ungrammatical) question keeps a single constant value of x while varying y whereas my (grammatical) question varies both x and y? I suppose that’s a possibility….

      • Neal said

        Right, you’ve got it: I’m holding X constant, and asking only about Y.

  2. Rachel Klippenstein said

    This is still kind of ugly, but it’s the best rephrasing that I can come up with:
    “Who is there that you would have sat on the camera if it was theirs?”

    • Gordon P. Hemsley said

      I think these circumlocutions are just as interesting as the island violations. There’s probably some way to use them to explain (theoretically and systematically) what the violations are and how to get around them.

  3. I didn’t say it out loud, though, because the syntax was so bad.

    Does that happen often? ;)

  4. The Ridger said

    On the other point, I can tell Adam isn’t familiar with the strategy for naming housing developments after all the trees that used to be there before they were bulldozed for the houses. Possibly my favorite is “The Arbor at Arundel Preserve”. Hah.

  5. The Ridger said

    You have to use a resumptive pronoun, right? “Whose camera would have sat it if it was theirs?”

    (Surely, though, the function of his question was to excuse his touching the camera if it was yours…)

  6. The Ridger said

    errr… Whose camera would you have sat on if it was theirs?

  7. Your underlying assumption that he would have sat on the camera if not yours, or whose it needed to be for him to sit on it is fallacious.

    He was not asking for permission to sit on your camera. He was asking if you had the authority to allow him to move it, so he would not sit on it. Had it not been yours, he would still have moved it, just on his own authority and responsibility when the owner came up and asked who moved it.

    • Neal said

      All true, of course. This reminds me that I should have also filed this post under “You’re so literal!”, so I’ll do that when I’m done with this comment.

      Still, whether or not my assumptions about Fred’s intentions and the social circumstances were correct, I found it interesting to try to formulate the question that came into my head, based on the assumption that Fred had a hankering to sit on that particular camera, but would stifle or give free rein to that desire depending on who owned the camera.

  8. MH said

    I would say:
    “Whose camera would it have to have been for you to sit on it?”
    which actually doesn’t sound all that awkward to me. I think it has the same meaning as what you’re trying to convey.

    • Neal said

      Yes, I think that’s the most natural-sounding workaround we’ve had. But even when I figure out a grammatical way to say what I mean, there’s still the interesting question of why the first attempt wasn’t grammatical.

  9. Buzz said

    I might have gone with the response, “Thank you; and upon whose camera would you have wanted to sit?” But that’s just me.

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