Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Non-ATB coordinations’ Category

Songs We Have to Play or the Fans Get Angry

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2012

If you read an interview with some classic rock act that still goes on tour, sometimes they’ll talk about their greatest hits that the audiences always expect to hear, and say something like

There are songs [we have to play ___] or [the fans will get angry].

Sentences like that one interest me, because they appear to be one variety of a well-studied family of unusual coordinate structures, but somehow this variety hasn’t been fit into the family picture yet. Before I go further, I’d better introduce the family for newer readers, or re-introduce it for longtime readers who might not remember the details.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations | 5 Comments »

I Forgot to Go to the Store and Get Any

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2012

A few days ago, as I was pulling into the garage, I suddenly said to myself,

Well, crap! I forgot to go to the store and get any club soda.

How annoying. We had run out of club soda two days before, so my wife couldn’t make any more of her favorite drink: club soda with cranberry juice (the sweetened kind, with lime flavor already in it). I couldn’t make any more for myself, either, and when that happens and there’s no iced tea made, it gives me an unfortunate excuse to continue my love-hate relationship with Coke.

Of course, that’s not what compels me to write about my utterance here on the blog. As with my last post, I was interested in a negative polarity item (NPI), in this case, the word any. You can’t say things like,

*I got any club soda.
*I want to get any club soda.
*I went to the store and got any club soda.

There has to be a negation or question or something similar involved; for example,

I didn’t get any club soda.
Do you want any club soda?

The verb forget counts as something similar, with its implicitly negative meaning of “not remember,” so you can certainly say,

I forgot to get any club soda.

So because my sentence had forgot as its main verb, there should be nothing surprising about having the NPI any somewhere in the complement to forgot, right? But in that case, why doesn’t this next sentence work?

*I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get any club soda.

At least, I don’t think it works. Do you? And the reason it doesn’t is the same reason that you can’t say something like

*Club soda is what I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get [ ].

For you to make a relative clause out of club soda, which plays a part in only one of the coordinated verb phrases, those verb phrases have to have some sensible relation to each other. Go to the store and get club soda go together as two steps in a single undertaking. On the other hand, scoop out the litterboxes and get club soda don’t have any relation to each other. Unless…

  • …you keep bottles of club soda buried in your litterboxes.
  • …scooping out the litterboxes is something that always happens right before you get club soda.
  • …scooping out the litterboxes sets a Rube Goldberg apparatus in motion that results in the delivery of club soda.

In those situations, that sentence would work, and so would I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get any club soda, I think. This is interesting. I hadn’t read or thought about NPI licensing as something that could be relevant to these coordinations that require a special relationship between the coordinated items.

P.S. I see that when I view the preview for this post using Chrome, the words continue, housecleaning, and filled are hyperlinked to spammy sites. I’ve been using Firefox up until now, and I see that these tacky ads don’t show up in that browser. Good on you, Firefox, and Chrome, I’m very disappointed.

Posted in Negative polarity items, Non-ATB coordinations | 15 Comments »

Linguistically Lost Again

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2012

For the past couple of months, the Netflix traffic in our house has ground to a halt, with The Bourne Supremacy and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog languishing on our mantel. During that time, our family movie nights have been spent pushing our way through seasons 1 and 2 of Lost on DVD, now that Doug and Adam are old enough to follow it. I wonder if we’re engaging in binge-viewing, a term I just heard in the past couple of weeks, but which seems to have been around since at least 2001. Maybe not; maybe you have to watch all the episodes without stopping to do other things like work or go to school before you can claim to have binge-viewed a set of episodes. (Did you catch my backformed compound verb there?)

I blogged about Lost a couple of times back in 2006. Now, during a second viewing, I’m catching not only foreshadowing and character connections that I missed the first time; I’m picking up linguistically interesting utterances that I missed, too.

First is essentially the same phrase, spoken by two characters in two episodes:

The button we have to push every 108 minutes or the island’s gonna explode [Charlie]

The button you gotta push every 108 minutes or the world ends. [Dave]

This is one of those coordinated relative clauses in which one of the clauses contains a gap and the other doesn’t. The one with the gap is we gotta push __ every 108 minutes; the one without the gap is the island’s gonna explode. Together, they sound fine, but try to make the one without a gap stand alone, and it’s no good:

[*]The button the island’s gonna explode. (only grammatical if the island will cause the button to explode)

[*]The button the world ends. (only grammatical if the world will end the button)

More specifically, it’s one of these asymmetric coordinations in which the conjunction is or instead of and. Those are a bit rarer, and tend to be overlooked in the literature on the subject (at least, in the papers I’ve read). I’ve blogged about them most recently in this post, about “the pot we have to shit or get off of”.

The other phrase I noted during these second viewings was one from Hurley, who was asked if he knew were Ana Lucia had gone, and answered sardonically:

That would assume that anyone actually tells me anything.

Anyone and anything are negative polarity items (click on the category label for all the relevant posts, or here for a short one that will give you the idea). They are most at home in negated sentences (I don’t want anything), questions (Do you want anything?), or sentences that express some kind of limitation (Only a few people know anything about this). But none of those is the case in Hurley’s sentence. The only negation there is an implied one, the unspoken proposition, “No one tells me anything.” I asked negation expert Larry Horn what he thought about NPIs in this sentence, and he observed that NPIs like the ones in Hurley’s sentence sound bad again when you specifically say that the assumption could actually be correct. He offered this comparison:

on the unlikely assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch (here’s some guacamole that would go nicely on the side)

#on the plausible assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch,…

So tell me, how does this sound?

That would assume, correctly, that anyone tells me anything.

Posted in Negative polarity items, Non-ATB coordinations, TV | 8 Comments »

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.

Posted in Comics, Non-ATB coordinations | 12 Comments »

The Pot That We Have to … Get Off Of

Posted by Neal on July 1, 2011

One of my dad’s favorite expressions is Shit or get off the pot! I like it, too, and use it regularly. (Ha, ha.) But I’ve never used it quite in the way it’s used in this line from the 2009 movie Beyond a Reasonable Doubt:

This is the proverbial pot that we have to shit or get off of. (link)

(Hat tip to Wilson Gray, who posted a message about this line on the American Dialect Society email list.)

The relative clause that we have to shit or get off of is interesting, for reasons other than its use of a colorful expression of questionable taste. For one thing, I’ve never heard get off of the pot in the more typical use of this idiom. It’s always been just off the pot, a phrasing copy editors would appreciate, since it eliminates (ha, ha) the needless of. But in this relative clause, the stranded preposition at the end is not off; it’s the double preposition off of. Maybe without the of, the verb phrase get off sounds too sexual. Shit, or get off? Which would you choose?

However, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. This relative clause contains a compound verb phrase, consisting of two verb phrases joined by or: shit, and get off of. To see what’s different about this, take another relative clause containing VPs joined by or:

This is the shirt that I have to return or exchange.

Notice that it’s still grammatical even if we have only of the conjoined verbs:

This is the shirt that I have to return.
This is the shirt that I have to exchange.

But try splitting shit and get off of into separate relative clauses, and only one of them is still grammatical:

*This is the proverbial pot that we have to shit. [Assuming we're not talking about passing a pot through one's digestive tract.]
This is the proverbial pot that we have to get off of.

Only one of those VPs contains a gap: get off of __, where the blank is understood to refer to the pot. The VP that doesn’t contain a gap, shit, can’t make a good relative clause, unless we do decide to take shit as a transitive verb (as it is in shit a brick, for example). I’ve written before about coordination of phrases that contain gaps with phrases that don’t, but usually when this happens, the conjunction is and. I’ll list a few examples below, with the coordinated VPs or clauses bracketed, and gaps indicated with __:

  • tears I’ve [sat here] and [cried __]
  • words you [look back on __] and [cringe]
  • crimes he’s [committed __] and [not gotten caught]

So far, though, the only other example I’ve found with or as the conjunction is these two that I blogged about in 2006:

  • Is there a criteria, you know, a list of things that [a star has to pass __ ] or [it sort of gets eliminated]?
  • Chomsky’s importance as a linguist lies in the fact that he regards the limitless abundance of language its most important property, one that any theory of language must [account for __], or [be discarded].

Both of those or examples had the same kind of relation holding between the coordinated clauses or VPs: a kind of cause/effect relation, such that the first event not happening causes the second event to happen. I also saw another example a few years ago, which I don’t seem to have written about. I’ve forgotten the exact wording, but it was from Bob Seger, when he was talking about doing concert tours. He said something like, “There are songs [we have to play __] or [the audience feels cheated].” Again, the same kind of cause/effect relation. And in all of these examples, the gap occurs in the first VP or clause.

In the potty example, the gap is in the second VP, get off of __. Is it the same kind of cause/effect relation? It could be, I guess. If you don’t shit, you will have to get off the pot; if a theory doesn’t account for some property, it will have to be discarded; if you don’t play the songs, the audience will feel cheated. But it also strikes me as a sentence primarily about the pot. In the Chomsky example, there’s an indirect relationship between the property to be explained and the gapless clause about a theory being discarded. In the Seger example, there’s an indirect relationship between the favorite songs and the gapless clause about an audience feeling cheated. In contrast, there’s a very direct relationship between the pot and shitting. It’s so direct, you could even make it explicit by adding a single preposition, in. The other examples need a few more words than that to make the relationship clear.

In fact, the current example looks to me more like the “Occasion” relation that holds in the tears I’ve sat here and cried example. That example describes a single situation, of sitting at a bar and crying over your lost love. This example describes a single situation of sitting on the toilet. The difference is that the sitting and crying are concurrent actions, while the shitting in the pot of getting off it are alternative actions. (Or consecutive ones, if the pot-sitter is successful.) And notice now that both coordinations have the gap in the first element, not the second — another way in which the sitting/crying and shitting/getting-off-of examples match up.

I can construct other examples of this kind of gapped/gapless coordination with the “alternatives” relation holding between the coordinated phrases; the test you have to give a presentation or take, etc. I’m more interested in seeing if others occur in the wild. If you’ve heard them or read them, leave a comment! (And for any literal-minded readers out there, not just any comment; a comment telling us about the example.)

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations, Potty on, dudes! | 9 Comments »

Books That I Want to Come Out or Get

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2010

I was ripping sheets out of a memo pad this morning, trying to find a blank one for a grocery list, when I came across one with two quotations from Doug, dated October 18, 2008. I guess I meant to write about them at some point, so why not now? Here’s the first one, with Doug talking about a lot of books in series he was reading whose next volume was to be published soon, or was already available:

There’s quite a few books that I want to come out or get.

Let’s expand that out into two sentences. First, there’s

There’s quite a few books that I want __ to come out.

Here, want is a verb that takes an NP and an infinitive as its complements: You want something to happen. The gap I’ve left in the sentence corresponds to that NP complement of want, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause that I want __ to come out, which modifies books.

Now the other sentence:

There’s quite a few books that I want to get __.

In this sentence, want just takes an infinitival complement: You want to do something. The gap here corresponds to the direct object of get, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause I want to get __, which again modifies books.

What I find interesting is that a single token of want is used in two ways, with different syntactic requirements and slightly different semantics. I wrote about this kind of thing in my dissertation, where I had another example a lot like Doug’s, taken from a newspaper article in 2001 or 2002. It was a handwritten list confiscated from a high school girl, which got her in a lot of trouble in the post-Columbine atmosphere. The list was titled:

People I want to kill or die

That is, all persons x such that she wanted to kill x, or wanted x to die. Actually, since then I’ve realized this construction could be parsed a different way. It could also be a relative clause like the one in “things you have to do or suffer the consequences”: She could theoretically meant “persons x such that I want to kill x or die as a consequence of my failure to kill x.” But in context, it was clearly a structure like Doug’s.

The other Doug quotation was:

Here comes him.

Not much to say here except to note it’s another illustration of the colloquial rule for use of nominative pronouns: Use them only as simple subjects that come before their verb (e.g. Here he comes). Use objective in all other cases: coordinated subjects (me and him have the same teacher), standalone pronouns (Him?), predicate nominatives (It was him), and in this example, subjects that come after their verb.

Posted in Doug, Fillers and gaps, Non-ATB coordinations, Pronouns, Syntax | 10 Comments »

Syntactic Gems from Jared Diamond

Posted by Neal on September 20, 2006

The Language Guy mentions Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel in this post. Funny he should mention this book. I’ve never read it, but it recently made it onto my mental reading list because I’m finding another book by Jared Diamond so interesting. The book is Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Aside from its compelling and scary content (supported by wide-ranging case histories that Diamond has done an astonishing amount of on-the-ground research for), I’ve found an unusually high number of syntactic or semantic oddities in this book. Enough, in fact, for me to gather them together in a single post here. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Multiple-level coordination, Non-ATB coordinations, Reviews, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 3 Comments »

Opportunities They Had But Lacked the Will to Do So

Posted by Neal on September 13, 2006

In the various columns, reports, and interviews concerning Cyrus Nowrasteh, the writer of The Path to 9/11, one quotation from Nowrasteh keeps showing up. He says:

It also dramatizes the frequent opportunities the Administration [had     in the 90s to stop Bin Laden in his tracks] but [lacked the will to do so].

If, in my literal-minded way, I were to take this as a completely parallel coordination, I would take it to mean that Nowrastek’s teleplay does two things: It dramatizes the frequent opportunities etc. etc., but it lacked the will to dramatize these opportunities. (It dramatizes these opportunities despite an earlier unwillingness to do it!) But I wouldn’t do that. I”ve parsed it as intended, so that inside the big relative clause modifying frequent opportunities, there are two verb phrases coordinated by but; one of them with a gap (indicated with the underlining) corresponding to frequent opportunities, and one with no gap. I’ve written about this kind of coordination before; it’s exemplified by tears I’ve [sat here] and [cried    ] and something I [put in    ], [sit back], and [run    ].

There are two differences, though. First, in the other examples, the final coordinated phrase (cried, run) always has a gap, but in this one it doesn’t (lacked the will to do so). Second, in the other examples the conjunction is and, while in this example it’s but. I have a feeling these two facts are related, but don’t know how yet.

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations | Leave a Comment »

Things You Must Do or Suffer the Consequences

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2006

I was listening to some podcasts of NPR’s Science Friday last week, so I could finally clear them off my iPod. The show from February 24 was about the search for extraterrestrial life, and at one point the host, Ira Flatow, asked researcher Margaret Turnbull about how she narrowed down the set of stars to investigate. He put the question this way:

Is there a criteria, you know, a list of things that [a star has to pass __ ] or [it sort of gets eliminated]? (link)

This quotation reminded me of another one I’ve had in my files for a few years:

…Chomsky’s importance as a linguist lies in the fact that he regards the limitless abundance of language its most important property, one that any theory of language must [account for __], or [be discarded].
(Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man, 1982, p. 183)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations, Semantics | 3 Comments »

Words You Look Back On and Cringe

Posted by Neal on March 6, 2006

Now I’m moving on to the DGM and Fraser quotations from the three in that earlier post. These were all quotations in which VPs were coordinated, and in each coordination, some of the VPs were missing an object, and some were not. I repeat the quotations once again below, with brackets indicating a missing object:

(Julie Andrews quotation)
Of course, I saw it a couple of times at various previews and things like that, but it’s not something that I actually put [ ] in, sit back and run [ ].

(DGM quotation)
It’s just a bunch of embarrassingly juvenile scratchings about life as a hormonal 15-year old girl, meant only for me to look back on [ ] and cringe….

(George MacDonald Fraser quotation)
…perhaps terror lends wings to my wits, for when I think of the monsters I’ve conversed with [ ] and come away with a whole skin, more or less….

As I wrote earlier, the Andrews quotation was an example of a coordination held together by the coherence relation of Occasion, with all VPs denoting some subevent of a main event involving a single topic, in this case, a video of The Sound of Music. In Andy Kehler‘s analysis of coordinations like these, the coherence relations holding together the coordinations in the other two quotations are two species of the Cause-Effect relation.

The DGM quotation involves the more straightforward of the two relations, namely Result, also seen in coordinations such as the ice cream I ate too fast and got an ice-cream headache. DGM looks back on the words she wrote as a teenager, and as a direct result, cringes in embarrassment. The topic is still her old writings, though, which is why we’re able to pull it out of the VP look back on. How do we independently know this is the topic, instead of just circularly concluding that it must be because the coordination works? The “Speaking of” test: You can say, “Speaking of the writings in my old diary, I looked back on them and cringed.” If we replace cringe with something that something that is seemingly irrelevant to rereading one’s old diary, the coordination doesn’t work so well anymore, and neither does the “Speaking of” test:

meant only for me to look back on and cringe

?meant only for me to look back on and notice that my toenails need clipping

?Speaking of the writings in my old diary, I looked back on them and noticed that my toenails needed clipping.

I marked these as questionable instead of downright bad because the inclination to read a Cause-Effect relation into it is so strong that I find myself trying to envision unusual contexts in which rereading your diary would cause you to notice that your toenails needed clipping.

Or… contexts in which you would expect rereading something to make you forget your toenails needed clipping, but contrary to all expectation, it doesn’t! Enter the other kind of Cause-Effect relation that Kehler brings into his analysis, that of Violated Expectations, seen in coordinations such as What evil wizard did Harry meet and live to tell the tale?. This brings us to the Fraser quotation. You would expect conversing with monsters to lead to physical harm, but Fraser’s character Flashman is talking about situations in which this expectation is not met. Monsters is still the topic, though, and therefore extractable from the one VP. Substitute come away with a whole skin for an irrelevant VP, and once again, neither the coordination nor the “Speaking of” test sounds so good:

the monsters I’ve conversed with and come away with a whole skin

?the monsters I’ve conversed with and noticed that my toenails needed clipping

?Speaking monsters, I’ve conversed with many of them and noticed that my toenails needed clipping.

Hence, the Andrews-DGM-Fraser trio of coordinations, none parallel syntactically, all nonetheless grammatical, and each licensed by a different coherence relation.

Posted in Non-ATB coordinations, Semantics | 1 Comment »


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