Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Minding the Gaps (Again)

Posted by Neal on October 29, 2011

I was reading an article in the Life & Arts section of the Columbus Dispatch this morning, about what effect the iPod has had in the ten years since its introduction. A sidebar had quotations from people in the entertainment industry giving their thoughts on the iPod. One Martin Atkins had this to say:

It’s made some music less special — more of a background incidental thing than something to sit in the middle of the stereo field and listen to uninterrupted.

It was a nice specimen to add to my pile of coordinated verb phrases (VPs) in which one VP (or more) contains a gap, but not all of them do. I’ve written about these in various other posts, so I’m tempted to just document this example and leave it. But I’ve learned that I do pick up a new reader now and then, so I’ll say again why coordinations like this one are interesting.

It is commonly said that items joined by a conjunction have to be “parallel”, but what exactly is meant by parallel varies from person to person. Examples like this one are non-parallel in a way I’ll describe shortly, but are usually not even noticed by native speakers.

The non-parallelism in this example has to do with whether the coordinated VPs contain gaps, i.e., a place where something like a subject or object (or even an adverb) is missing. The VP listen to __ uninterrupted is missing an object of a preposition (specifically, the preposition to). That gap corresponds to the pronoun something. You could move something into the gap and end up with listen to something uninterrupted. In contrast, the VP sit in the middle of the stereo field does not contain any gap to correspond to something. Try putting something into that VP, and you end up with something ungrammatical, like *sit in the middle of the stereo field something. Now I suppose you could insert something as a direct object of sit, if your dialect allows sit as a transitive verb, and get sit something in the middle of the stereo field. That might be grammatical, but it’s not what Atkins meant. He wasn’t talking about placing a music-playing device in the middle of its own stereo field and listening to it; he had in mind sitting down in the middle of the stereo field of a music-playing device and listening to it.

Non-parallel coordinations like these are said to violate the “Across-the-Board” (ATB) constraint, to the effect that if one of the coordinated elements has a gap, all of them do. Clearly, this constraint is invalid, but the name is well-enough known that examples that violate it are sometimes known as “non-ATB coordinations”. Non-ATB coordinations that refer to related activities that occur together in some larger, typical situation, usually have a gap in the last item in the coordination, and this example is true to form, with the gap occurring in the second element, listen to uninterrupted.

The iPod article on the front page, and continued on page 2, where I found that non-ATB coordination. When I finished reading about iPods, I turned to the funny pages. There I read Sally Forth, a comic that I don’t even know why I read anymore. I don’t like the stories much, and I hate how they’re drawn. So I won’t bother linking to today’s strip in any online comics archive or anything; I’ll just go straight to the utterance I read in one of the word balloons:

I found it, Sal! The perfect course for me to enroll in and meet new people!

Another non-ATB coordination! In this one, the VP enroll in __ has a gap for the object of in, corresponding to course. The VP meet new people, on the other hand, has no gap. Its direct object is right there in plain view: new people. This coordination of VPs is referring to a sequence of events in a cause-effect relationship: enrolling in the course will result in meeting new people. This kind of non-ATB coordination usually does not have a gap in the final coordinated element, and this example bears that out. It’s the first VP, enroll in __ that has the gap, not the second.

As I said, I’ve written about these before, but it was fun to find an example of two varieties of non-ATB coordinations within five minutes of one another in a single section of the newspaper.

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12 Responses to “Minding the Gaps (Again)”

  1. The Ridger said

    Maybe Alice meant “enroll in and meet new people in”? Though I think she meant “enroll in TO meet new people”.

    • I agree, there must be a silent “in”… because you can say “The perfect course for me to meet new people” and seemingly no have a gap otherwise. So I think there’s a lot more going on in that sentence (DP, really, as the rest of the sentence is before it, with a pronoun ‘it’).

      Also, I think you can analyze “listen to” as a compound verb and still have your point about the gap stand. I’ve come up with a quick explanation as to why that gap occurs (and, in particular, why it’s the last VP that gets the gap). Not sure how it compares to the literature, but I imagine it’s quite similar. However, I think the comic sentence(s) are a different phenomenon altogether.

      • Neal said

        I’m interested in hearing your analysis if you feel like sharing it.

      • Well, first, we have to assume that conjunctive phrases (ConjP) are such that one XP is SpecConjP and one XP is ComplConjP, with ‘and’ as the Conj head.

        Then, the first VP (“sit in the middle of the stereo field”) is in SpecConjP and nothing can move out of it to fulfill the EPP or check case. However, the other VP (“listen to [something] uninterrupted”) is a regular complement and the “something” can move up to SpecTP to fulfill the EPP and/or check case.

        Then you’ve got a tree that looks like this:
        [CP [C’ [C - ] [TP [DP_k something ] [T’ [T to ] [ConjP [VP [V’ [V sit ] [PP in the middle of the s.f. ] ] ] [Conj’ [Conj and ] [VP [V’ [V’ [V listen ] [PP [P’ [P to ] [ t_k ] ] ] ] [AdvP uninterrupted ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ]

      • Neal said

        I’m familiar with the ConjP analysis, and in fact used it as the basis of my analysis of sentences like, “Why do you get to play and I have to stay here?” However, such an analysis doesn’t cover the coordinations in which a non-final conjunct has the gap, such as “Now what am I going to watch all day ___ and drink?” or “This is the stuff they drink ___ and live to be 100 years old.”

      • Hmm…

        Well, I don’t think that first sentence (the question) is grammatical for me, but are you sure it’s not “Now what am I going to watch ___ all day and drink?”? Also, I presume this is intended to be the “drink” that means “imbibe alcohol”, but that is not the reading that I get. I’m pretty sure the reading that I get is more along the lines of this, for whatever it’s worth: “Now what am I going to watch ___ all day and drink ___?” I’m also getting hung up on the “now what” part, because that seems to have special meaning (and possible constituency) beyond just a regular adverbial time marker (like “all day”, I suppose). So I think there are all sorts of other issues with this sentence that perhaps require additional explanation.

        In my analysis of the stereo sentence, I conjoined two VPs as a complement to a T. I presume in your play sentence, you conjoined two TPs as a complement to a C?

        In the second sentence, I think something different is happening again, because the “and” (or, at least, the phrase that follows it) seems to imply causation by the preceding phrase (try changing the “and” to “to”), which is different from the other sentences we’ve been looking at. Perhaps there is an argument in here about a causative vP; I don’t know where the ConjP would come in (if anywhere).

      • Neal said

        Yes, I meant to put the gap after watch, and yes, drink is intended as intransitive, and that is the reading I get. It’s from an episode of Futurama, and at least two people have sent it to me (one of them being Ingeborg).

        Actually, my analysis didn’t extend to ATB-violating coordinations like these; they were one of the directions for future research.

        It’s true that the enroll in and meet new people phrase implies causation, but examples with extraction from the nonfinal coordinate can also show violated expectations, as in How many beers can he drink and not get drunk?

  2. R said

    “There I read Sally Forth, a comic that I don’t even know why I read [__] anymore.”

    I see what you did there. :)

  3. My old example from Futurama, which looked like a RNW but wasn’t, looks relevant again: When Fry had his TV set repossessed, he complained “Now what am I going to watch [___] and drink all day?”

  4. ASG said

    Off-topic (and late as always), but a typo in your quotation there made it really confusing for me. You mean “thing” and not “things.” I checked the original source and the stray plural isn’t there.

    Normally I wouldn’t fuss about such a minor error*, but you were drawing attention to something strange about the sentence, and that was the thing (things?) that struck me as most immediately strange!

    * Aw, who am I kidding. I LIVE to fuss about minor errors.

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