Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Pillaged for Dead

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2013

Time for a few more right-node wrapping coordinations that I’ve been accumulating. The most recent one, the one that completed the trio I’m posting today, I got via an online issue of the University of Texas alumni assocation’s newsletter. You’ll hear it in this video created by Jon Cozart, a UT theatre sophomore. He sings a capella parodies of the (mostly) “I Wish” songs from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas, accompanying himself with himself as three backup singers (complete with visual reactions to each other). In the final Pocahontas parody, he sings the line

They pillaged, raped, and left us all for dead.

Laying aside the question of whether pillage can take people rather than towns or villages as its direct object, the meaning seems to be that they (1) pillaged us all, (2) raped us all, and (3) left us all for dead. However, if this were a syntactically parallel coordination, it would mean that they “pillaged us all for dead” and “raped us all for dead”, too. But since for dead just doesn’t go with those verbs, we know that the first reading was the intended one.

A month or so ago, I read this sentence in a magazine that my genealogy-enthusiast Aunt Jane gave me a gift subscription to:

Creating a reproduction of the original heirloom … means every family member can hold, own, or view it on a computer. (Denise May Levenick, “Dear Diaries,” Family Tree Magazine, Jan/Feb 2013. p. 28.)

This case is a little less clear-cut. The meaning seems to be that every family member can (1) hold it, (2) own it, or (3) view it on a computer. To parse it as a parallel structure, you’d have to take it to mean that family members can hold it on a computer, and own it on a computer. Although they’re a bit unidiomatic, you could parse these phrases this way if you were really determined to. However, having read the article, I say that my non-parallel, RNW-style parse gives the author’s intended meaning.

The earliest of the trio comes from the October 11, 2012 episode of the Freakonomics podcast. It’s about the so-called “Cobra Effect,” whereby placing a bounty on any nuisance you want to encourage people to eliminate simply encourages them to create more of these nuisances in order to kill them and collect more bounties. One segment was about wild boars in Texas, and contained this sentence:

They spend a lot of time trapping and removing pigs from the base.

Parsing this as a non-parallel structure, you get that people are (1) trapping pigs and (2) removing them from the base. If you insist on a parallel parse, you get that people are “trapping pigs from the base”. That’s not grammatical. Well, it is, but only if you take from the base to modify pigs instead of trapping. Try it with them instead of pigs to get the full effect: trap them from the base. No good.

So there you have them, the latest three RNWs in my ongoing collection.

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5 Responses to “Pillaged for Dead”

  1. Glen said

    I don’t think the first example is clear-cut. You’ll often hear ‘rape’ and ‘pillage’ used in an intransitive fashion, as in “The Vikings raped and pillaged all up and down the coast.” So the parallel reading would be: (a) they pillaged, (b) they raped, and (c) they left us all for dead.

    • Neal said

      That thought actually occurred to me as I woke up this morning. You’re right; this example isn’t so clear-cut after all. I also realized I’d goofed on the non-linguistic aside claim that the parodied songs are the “I Wish” songs. They’re not, with the possible exception of the one from Pocahontas. I’ve made that correction in the post itself.

  2. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I heard a coordination last night that seemed interesting to me, and I thought you might think so too:

    “There’s a lot of things that you expect to turn out badly and don’t”.

    It looks like a coordinate relative clause with gaps in both halves of the coordination – an object gap in the first half and a subject gap in the second half.

    I guess it’s a bit like Doug’s “There’s quite a few books that I want to come out or get” that you wrote about here:

    http://literalminded.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/books-that-i-want-to-come-out-or-get/

  3. EP said

    Maybe, just maybe, they really did spend a lot of time trapping on the base, too (rabbits or other small mammals?). When not removing the pigs, I mean.

  4. Eugene said

    I think parallelism is a hobgoblin of editorial minds (not irrelevant in edited prose, though). In ordinary, real-time language use we process utterances in order to make sense of them, and we ignore anomalies (unless they are funny) and tolerate a lot of ambiguity.

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