Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Couple More RNWs

Posted by Neal on July 3, 2012

A reader named Ari Blenkhorn (I’m guessing it’s this one) emailed me a few weeks ago. She has been reading this blog long enough to have picked up on my partiality to a kind of coordinate structure I’ve named right-node wrapping (RNW). She sent me this one that she’d found in the wild:

Like any firewall, IPFW needs to examine packets and then decide to drop, modify, or pass the packets unchanged through the system.

As Ari wrote in her email:

What the author means, of course, is that the three choices are to drop the packets, modify the packets, or pass the packets unchanged through the system. “Drop the packets unchanged through the system” might make sense in other contexts, but “modify the packets unchanged…” ? Nope.

His example nicely fills out a trio of new RNW examples, heard in the wild, that I now present here. One of them, I heard on an episode of the On the Media podcast back in October. It was about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, and talked about

Police tear gassing and hitting protesters with sticks

Hitting protesters with sticks? Sure. Tear-gassing them with sticks? No.

As it happens, the third RNW example also comes from On the Media, specifically the June 15 episode, which talks about oppressive, violent dictatorships hiring PR firms to polish their international reputation. The reporter is Ken Silverstein from Harper’s, and at about eight and a half minutes in, Ken says that one such firm

…said they would write and place op/eds in American newspapers.

This example is a little different from the others, because there are a couple of ways you might argue that it’s not necessarily an RNW. Before I talk about those arguments, I’ll just say that the reading I get is “writing op/eds and placing them in American newspapers”: the true RNW parsing, with the shared direct object, and some kind of phrase following that direct object that is intended to go only with the final coordinate (in this case place).

One way of disqualifying this example as an RNW is to say, “What’s the problem? Place op/eds in American newspapers makes sense, and so does write op/eds in American newspapers.” My response is that in place op/eds in American newspapers, the PP modifies the verb place, whereas in write op/eds in American newspapers, it modifies the noun op/eds. In the original phrasing, I can’t get the reading where the PP does both those jobs at once.

Another way of disqualifying this example is to say that in American newspapers actually does modify the verb both times; i.e. write op/eds in American newspapers means to do the writing while in a newspaper. This is ridiculous, of course. I might be able to accept someone saying they write “in” a newspaper and mentally correct it to “for” in my own dialect, but in that case, we’re talking about the newspaper as a company, not the actual printed page or screen. In that case, instead of having a single PP do two jobs in the original phrasing, we now have to have newspapers with two simultaneous meanings. Again, I can’t get that reading. Besides, the people who would be writing these op/eds are not newspaper employees; they work for the PR firm.

Yet another argument could be that write is used intransitively here, so that the coordinated VPs are (1) write and (2) place op/eds in American newspapers. It’s syntactically parallel now, but I think the intended meaning is almost certainly “write op/eds”.

So much for those three RNWs. Actually, I thought I had four, because I heard another one on an episode of Planet Money, in which they played a clip of Franklin Roosevelt explaining the creation of the FDIC. But I later remembered that they’d played that same clip on an episode in 2008, and I blogged about it then.

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4 Responses to “A Couple More RNWs”

  1. Glen said

    I get the same RNW reading you do for the newspaper example. However, I think the second disqualifying response is stronger than you say. I’ll sometimes read something like, “William Safire writes in the Wall Street Journal that American literacy is on the decline.” Now, they’re not saying that Safire necessarily works for the Wall Street Journal. They’re simply saying that Safire has written an article that appears in the Wall Street Journal. So it seems that “write in” can mean “have one’s writing appear in.”

  2. Ran said

    Semantically, it wouldn’t make sense to read “write and place op/eds in American newspapers” non-RNW-fully; although it’s possible to say “write op/eds in American newspapers”, it wouldn’t make sense to say “write op/eds in American newspapers and place them there”. In a sense, “write op/eds in American newspapers” is already shorthand for something like “write op/eds and place them in American newspapers”, so “write op/eds in American newspapers and place them there” would mean something like “write op/eds, place them in American newspapers, and place them there”.

  3. Ari said

    Here’s another:

    http://www.livedash.com/transcript/overcoming_anxiety/6120/AETVP/Tuesday_October_19_2010/321532/

    Skim down to 27:42.

    “Narrator: The japanese whalers have activated and directed their lrad at the sea shepherd helicopter.”

    (LRAD: long range acoustic device, a sonic weapon)

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