Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

New Data Points

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2011

Here are a few items I’ve come across in the past several months. If this were my first year writing this blog, each of them would have been immediately worth a whole post. But since I’ve been doing this for more than seven years, I’ve already written about these topics, in some cases numerous times. So now they’ve just been sitting in my drafts pile until I had enough of them scraped together to put in a combined post.

On a Language Log post on a malnegation from Newt Gingrich, commenter Tom Recht went slightly off topic to offer the following:

A colleague, on hearing that a mutual friend had applied for the same fellowship she had applied for, recently said to me: “I hope he doesn’t get it and I don’t get it.”

What she meant was not “I hope that [[he doesn't get it] and [I don't get it]]“, but “I hope that [not [he gets it and I don't get it]]“. She was morphosyntactically negating only the first of the two coordinated clauses even though the negation applied to the entire coordination — grammatically impossible, you might think, but immediately intelligible in context.

A nice summation of exactly the kind of coordination that first grabbed my attention in a set of phenomena that I first called “coordination with half-negation” but now call by the more general term of wide-scoping operators.

Next, here’s something Glen sent me back in March:

Just found the following sentence in a student paper I’m grading:

“George believes that making the [website] template was better than buying [from an outside designer] because the integration costs associated with testing and integrating an external design into our existing system would be too high.”

FLoP?

FLoP, of course, is the initial name “Friends in Low Places” coordination, which I gave to the kind of nonparallel coordinations that I now call right-node wrapping. Not just any nonparallel coordination is an RNW. The last coordinate has to wrap around something that actually belongs to both coordinates. In this case, the complex verb integrate … into our existing system wraps around the direct object an external design. By all rights, that should encapsulate this noun phrase inside the second coordinate, but in fact, it’s also the direct object for the first verb, testing.

My wife and I were discussing the latest news from the hyper-religious Arkansas Duggar family. You know, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who decided they would use no form of birth control, “let God decide” how many children they should have, and give them all names that begin with J, no matter how ridiculous those names became after they used the obvious ones. (Jinger? Does that rhyme with ringer or is it homophonous with ginger? I hope the latter.) God may have been indicating a decision when Michelle recently miscarried their 20th child. Giving me the news, my wife said,

The Duggars lost their 20th child.

I noticed the same ambiguity here that I noticed in sentences like Doug lost his first tooth. If you look just at first tooth or 20th child, you have to figure out what sequence you’re talking about. For Doug’s first tooth, you probably mean “first tooth to erupt in Doug’s mouth.” For 20th child, you probably mean “the 20th child that they conceived.” But in the construction VERB one’s Nth NOUN, the verb overrides the default set of ordered events, and the whole thing means “VERB a NOUN for the Nth time.” So Doug lost his first tooth has the intended meaning of “lost a tooth for the first time” along with the unintended meaning of “lost the first tooth that he cut”. And The Duggars lost their 20th child, in addition to the sad intended meaning of “lose the 20th child that they conceived,” could also have the much sadder, not-intended meaning of “lose a child for the 20th time.”

Lastly, here’s a sentence I heard from someone talking about picky eaters:

What is something similar to raw carrots that you’d be willing to give a shot?

Nice extraposition of the relative clause that you’d be willing to give a shot from the something it modifies, but what really interested me was the fact that in the verb phrase give [something] a shot, it’s the indirect object that got pulled out to be the modified noun: something … that you’d be willing to give a shot. In a recent post, I discussed why Who Brynn gave the cookies (with who as an extracted indirect object) sounded so much worse than Who Brynn gave the cookies to (with who as an extracted object of a preposition). Most commenters agreed that it was, but Glen commented:

Well, let me just register my surprise. None of the *-marked constructions here sound even slightly bad to me. Not that I object to the ‘to’, because it can help clarify things in some cases. But omitting it just isn’t a problem at all for me.

Well, Glen, here’s one that popped right out in spontaneous conversation. Now I’m the one registering surprise!

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13 Responses to “New Data Points”

  1. With regard to “give a shot”, I’m not convinced that it’s the indirect object; I’m not even convinced that they’re parallel constructions.

    You can easily alternate between “Brynn gave him the cookies” and “Brynn gave the cookies to him”, but I would never be able to say “Brynn gave a shot to carrots”. It would always have to be “Brynn gave carrots a shot.”

    • I agree. (Not so much about the “indirect object” labelling or not, but the rest.) Unless one is giving an injection to the carrots. Which was my initial mental picture reading the sentence. I think it’s an idiom that doesn’t work so well with changing the syntax.

    • Neal said

      It’s well-recognized that not all ditransitive verbs (i.e. those that take both indirect and direct object) can participate in the dative alternation, and also that even those that can, such as give, don’t do it in idioms so well. Thus, She gave him a kiss is fine, while She gave a kiss to him is iffy. (But if the NP is too long for an indirect object, it regains some acceptability: She gave a kiss to her husband of five years.) So the fact that *Brynn gave a shot to carrots sounds so bad is irrelevant: In Brynn gave carrots a shot, the NP carrots definitely functions as an indirect object. It’s the syntactic structure that makes this so, not whether you can actually “give” carrots anything.

  2. Oh, and I’m also not convinced that “an external design” is the object of “testing”. That verb is often intransitive in these sorts of contexts.

    • (Forgive the multiple comments. I’m commenting from my phone and it’s not as ready to sit around and think while drafting a comment.)

      Even if “an external design” is an object to “testing”, it seems to me that “integrating into our existing system” is some sort of complex particle-verb construction, so the alternation is not as unexpected.

    • Neal said

      Good point in the first comment. This might not be an RNW, after all.

      Regarding the second comment, even if integrating into our existing system is a kind of complex predicate (an entirely reasonable stance), that wouldn’t preclude this being an RNW, since phrasal verbs, resultatives, and other complex predicates are the very kinds of predicates that make most RNWs possible in the first place. (E.g., chase [my blues] away.)

  3. Glen said

    I agree with the commenters above that the idiomatic character of “give X a shot” makes the syntax unclear. But if you’re looking for examples of extracted indirect objects, try Googling “who he gave a” (and swap ‘she’ for ‘he’ and ‘an’ for ‘a’ as well). Here are some of the examples I found:

    “By September 1656 he had married Amy, a white woman, who he gave a mare by deed of jointure.”
    “… and another employer who he gave a verbal warning on May 5, and another verbal warning on May 6.”
    “Olbermann talks about how Obama was elected by people who he gave a clear outline of what he would do FOR them.”
    “… after a fight with a woman who he gave a lift.”
    “He gave a good review to intern Scott (who he gave an A-)…”
    “Then Quintus summoned for a faithful slave, who he gave an order.”
    “The daughter of Abu Bakr and wife of Rasulullah was accused in an ugly way (in surah Nur) by someone who he gave an allowance.”
    “The judge recommended Richards, who he gave an indeterminate sentence, is deported to his native Jamaica when he is released…”

    Anyway, I’m not trying to argue the point. The ‘to’ construction is certainly more common. But apparently I’m not alone in doing these indirect-object extractions.

  4. Ran said

    > Nice extraposition of the relative clause that you’d be willing to give a shot from the something it modifies […]

    Is that really extraposition? I thought that an extraposed relative clause is one that’s completely separated from the phrase headed by what modifies, like in “I met a woman the other day who […]” (where “the other day” is an adverbial modifying “met a woman […] who […]“), or “He is wise who […]” (where “is wise” is the predicate and “He […] who […]” is the subject).

  5. The Ridger said

    A lot of people can pull out the indirect object and a lot don’t like to. I think it’s similar to how some of my students really don’t like “indirect-object-as-subject passives” (e.g., Jane was given a book for her birthday) and others see no problem with it.

    • Ran said

      That surprises me; CGEL describes that sort of example as “fully acceptable”, contrasting it with debatable examples like “Sue was ordered a copy” (also promoting the I.O., but it being a “for” I.O. rather than a “to” I.O.) and “A book was given Jane for her birthday” (promoting the D.O., leaving a “to” I.O. in place; more acceptable in BrE than AmE, and more acceptable with a “by”-phrase than without) and out-and-out-ungrammatical examples like “A copy was ordered Sue” (promoting the D.O., leaving a “for” I.O. in place).

      I hate to ask this sort of question, but . . . do your students have a good command of Standard Written English? I can definitely understand that some people will accept things that aren’t considered standard in all dialects, but it seems bizarre that some people should reject a common construction that, as far as I’m aware, is considered standard in all dialects. But since the passive voice seems to be much less common in speech than in writing, maybe it’s just that they don’t have any good sense of what passives are standard . . .

  6. Uly said

    You need to close your italics!

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