Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Gluten, Lactose, and Nonconstituent Coordination

Posted by Neal on September 28, 2011

Longtime reader and occasional blogger Blar sent me an unusual coordination, complete with a picture:

The meaning of this phrase is clear enough: The kefir (whatever that is) is gluten-free and for the most part lactose free. (Actually, does 99% lactose free mean that 1% of the kefir consists of lactose, or that 99% of whatever lactose was there has been removed? Either way, I’ll just leave it as “for the most part lactose free”.) But the syntax is so, so bad! It just goes to show that you can’t always factor out the common part of two coordinated phrases and end up with something assume that the resulting coordination will be grammatical. Just because you can replace John sang and Marsha sang with John and Marsha sang doesn’t mean you can replace gluten free and 99% lactose free with gluten and 99% lactose free. But why not?

Let’s take a look at gluten-free and 99% lactose free separately. Gluten is a noun; free is an adjective; and together they form the compound adjective gluten free. The compound adjective lactose free is composed in the same way. In addition, the noun 99% modifies the compound adjective lactose free to create the bigger adjective 99% lactose free. In the diagram, this structure is shown by having lactose and free under one roof, or in syntactic jargon, forming a constituent. 99% lactose free is a larger constituent, all contained under the bigger roof.


99% lactose, however, is not a constituent. So maybe gluten and 99% lactose don’t coordinate well because 99% lactose isn’t a constituent.

Unfortunately, that alone won’t explain the ungrammaticality, because nonconstituent coordination (NCC) happens a lot, in phrases like I sent the package by UPS and the tax return via the postal service. The package by UPS is not a constituent, and neither is the tax return via the postal service. NCC tends to flow more smoothly when the coordinated pieces have similar structures (i.e. when they’re “parallel”), as in this example, with both coordinates consisting of a noun phrase naming a thing sent and a prepositional phrase naming the deliverer. Gluten and 99% lactose, in contrast, are not parallel in this way.

So what happens if we make them parallel? How about:

100% gluten and 99% lactose free

Nope, still no good for me. How is it for you?

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16 Responses to “Gluten, Lactose, and Nonconstituent Coordination”

  1. Jonathon said

    That parallel version is still no good for me either, but I can’t tell if it’s just awkward or if there’s something more fundamentally wrong. If I were copy editing it, I’d write “Gluten-free and 99% lactose-free”, but they probably didn’t want to shrink it down that much to fit it.

  2. Chiew said

    For me, the only correct way is as Jonathon says: “Gluten-free and 99% lactose-free”, or they can save a few more characters by saying: No Gluten, 99% Lactose-free, or No Gluten, 1% Lactose, or 0% Gluten, 1% Lactose. ;-)

  3. h. s. gudnason said

    Leaving linguistics for a moment and heading toward the dairy aisle, Kefir is a fermented milk product that’s originally from Central Asia but also popular now in Europe and some parts of the U.S. It’s quite good.

    Another discussion group I take part in recently had an exchange about our comparative experiences with ayraq (Mongolia), ymer (Denmark), filmjolk (Sweden), and kefir. We didn’t discuss their gluten-and-lactose-percentage freedom, though.

  4. Fritinancy said

    How about “Got allergies?”

  5. Still bad for me but I can’t tell why… Unlike coordination is of course very common and so I tend to question the fundamental characteristics of it as a test… E.g. the famous example ‘He’s a Republican and proud of it’, which is obviously wholly grammatical.

  6. David Craig said

    Yet still we have no problem understanding what it means. Brings back the old saying: If it works in practice but not in theory something must be wrong with the practice.

  7. The Ridger said

    I think it’s because we’re coordinating “gluten” and “99%”. How about “100% gluten- and 99% lactose-free”?

  8. Peter said

    I think we’re being too fussy. It’s not 100% grammatical because they’re trying to squeeze it onto the cap. I wouldn’t be too hard on them!

  9. EP said

    I’ll go with

    No gluten and 99% lactose free.

    But I’m a gluten for punishment.

  10. Zach said

    It looks like I’m in the strange position of not finding the original ungrammatical, even though the modified “100% glucose…” version does sound bad to me. I think I’m processing it as though the “99%” were an aside, like: “Glucose and (99%) lactose free.”

    Does that make it better for anyone else? How about if the “99%” is converted to the phrase hinted at at the beginning of the post: “Glucose and, for the most part, lactose free”?

  11. Ellen K. said

    It works for me, but wouldn’t work in speech.

  12. Chris Brew said

    Try putting the 99% before the 100% “99% gluten- and 100%- lactose free”, Any difference from the other order?

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