Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Fillers and gaps’ Category

Blue Christmas Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2013

Looking through the community newspaper, I saw an announcement of the various Christmas-related services that a local church was having. One of them caught my eye:

A tradition from Canada?

I liked the creative use of the song title “Blue Christmas” to name a service for, I assumed, people grieving for departed loved ones or maybe with serious health problems. Pretty clever name, I thought, for a service that I hadn’t heard of before but which sounded like it filled a need. Then I looked across to the facing page of the newspaper, saw another listing of Christmas services from another church, and among the services, saw listed another Blue Christmas service. So apparently this wasn’t an original naming, but a more widespread thing. On the American Dialect Society email list, Dan Goncharoff found two attestations from 1998, both from Canada, and both describing it as a service “for those grieving and in pain at Christmas.” If you’ve heard of Blue Christmas services earlier than that, let me know in the comments.

However, that’s not what I really wanted to comment on. I was more interested in the description in the newspaper:

for those whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

It’s another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are people such that

Christmas is a difficult time for them to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Turning that into a relative clause, we would expect

those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Putting it all together, we should have

for those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

But the writer, I suspect, second-guessed themself and figured there must be something wrong with the lineup of for those for. In the earlier post that I linked to, I noted that the two prepositions had to be the same, but actually, that might not be true. In the widely mangled proverb

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

the of at the beginning is often lopped off. Why the of instead of the to? I don’t know, but I notice that in these two examples, the preposition that survives is the one that points to the beneficiary role: the person who is given much, the person the service is intended for.

They seem to have left off an S here

On an unrelated note, for a few hours after I read the announcement, I had “Blue Christmas” running through my head, and not just any version, but the version from Elvis’s Christmas Album, including the wah-wah-wah-waah ostinato that was drilled into my head through Dad’s numerous playings of the album over the years. What’s the linguistic connection? Also on that album is “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” which I first heard at age 4, when Dad had just bought the album and was playing it for us. “Listen, Neal-o, he wants Santa to bring his baby back,” he told me. At that age, I knew nothing of the lexical ambiguity of baby; I just wondered why jolly old Santa had taken away this man’s child.

Posted in Christmas songs, Christmas-related, Relative clauses | 1 Comment »

There’s Only So …

Posted by Neal on May 4, 2013

Almost seven years ago, I was cutting up some chicken fingers for Adam, and my wife dared to question my chicken-finger-cutting skills, asking if I was sure I was cutting it into small enough pieces. As I told her at the time:

There’s only so small I can cut it.

In the six years since then, I’m happy to report that Adam has learned to cut his own food, so I haven’t repeated the utterance. And in the case of chicken fingers, which Adam loves just as much now as he did then, he just picks them up and eats them as finger food anyway. But what interested me at the time, as I wrote here, was how easily I was able to generate that sentence, which I don’t find grammatical. I wasn’t doing diagrams on this blog back then, but if I had, I probably would have put up a diagram something like this to show the syntactic structure of the “There’s only so much” construction:

I'm sorry; my hands are tied here.

After the subject there and the verb is, there’s only one more chunk: the noun phrase only so much I can do. This NP has two parts: the determinative phrase only so much, and the “nouny” part of the NP (the nominal). As it happens, the nouny part of this NP doesn’t have a noun. I’ve labeled this missing noun N1. If the phrase were something like only so much money I can spend, or only so much information you’re allowed to see, this is where the noun money or information would go. Right next to the N1 is a relative clause that’s missing an NP in the place labeled GAP, which is subscripted with a 1 to show this gap corresponds to the N1.

In my sentence about the chicken fingers, though, there’s no much followed by a nominal. There’s no NP; there’s some kind of business with the adjective small. How did my grammar get to a place where it could generate that? I think the first step was a reanalysis like this:

The relative clause breaks free!

Now, after the There is, there are two constituents instead of one. The relative clause I can do GAP has broken free of the rest of the NP. Also, the GAP in the relative clause is now identified with the whole NP only so much, instead of the N inside it.

The last part is to lose the restriction to having just an NP and a clause with an NP gap. So here’s the more general version, with N replaced by ? to show that it can be an adjective phrase or adverb phrase — really, any phrase as long as it refers to something gradable. The clause that used to be just a relative clause is now a clause with any kind of gap, as long as it’s the same kind as the only phrase. Now this construction can handle utterances like my There’s only so small I can cut it or There’s only so far you can go.

There's only: general version

The reason I was reminded of only so small I can cut it is that I was listening to the most recent episode of Risk (the podcast that had that real-life example of a squinting ambiguity). The host Kevin Allison was telling a story about a time when he was obsessively trying to memorize a comedy bit he was going to perform. But he hit a point of diminishing returns, because

There’s only so memorized the thing can get.

In my 2006 post, I ended with a link to a page of Google results with similar examples. COCA wasn’t around then — or if it was, I hadn’t heard of it yet. But it’s here now. When I searched for “there BE only so *”, I got 448 hits, of which 428 are instances with much or many. Of the remaining 20, twelve had far; six had long; the last two had fast. Here’s an example of each:

  • there was only so far he could extend the examination before Djazir caught on
  • there was only so long he could hold this form before his own magick turned on him
  • There’s only so fast that the government can act

Got any examples with other adjectives or adverbs? Leave a comment!

Posted in Fillers and gaps | 2 Comments »

Comparative Correlatives Part III

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2013

All right, so in my last post I was talking about comparative correlative structures, sentences like The more I learn, the less I know, and more specifically, comparative correlatives like this one:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information … (link)

In this example, the comparative phrase the fewer companies is linked (by the relative pronoun who to the subject of the predicate store your credit card information. The thing is, do you phrase it as seen above, as a relative clause with the who, or would you do it like this, without the who?

The fewer companies store your credit card information …

That’s what I was thinking about in my last post. Now I want to take a detour to another kind of comparative correlative clause, a kind that we get, in fact, in the second part of our example:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information, the better for your financial safety.

The second part of this comparative correlative structure, the better for your financial safety, doesn’t have a clause to go with it, with a gap for the better for your financial safety to fill in. We have to imagine that gappy clause ourselves, something like this:

… the better for your financial safety [it will be ___].

In this example, the bare comparative better for your financial safety is an adjective phrase, but there are plenty of examples with bare comparative noun phrases. Here’s one with a bare comparative noun phrase in the first half, and the bare comparative the better in the second:

The more cats [there are ___], the better [it will be ___]. (link)

Now let’s get back to So now suppose that instead of more we have fewer; instead of the noun cats, we have companies, and not just any companies but companies who store your credit card information:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information [there are ___], the better [it will be ___].!

In other words, maybe the who store your credit card information isn’t the clausal part of the comparative correlative at all, and the real clause is unspoken. If that’s possible, then we should also expect comparative correlative structures like this in which the gappy there are ___ clause is actually spoken, or written. However, it most likely wouldn’t have there are at the end, the way I wrote it above. The noun phrase is so long that it would get split up and wrapped around the there are, like this:

The fewer companies there are who store your credit card information, the better!

And here they are, as found in COCA and through Google at large:

  • …the more people there are who reach that state of mind…
  • …the more people there are who love Mr. Darcy…
  • …the more people there are who can write…
  • …the fewer people there are who are willing to support them.
  • Sometimes the fewer people there are, the less there are to worry about…
  • For the higher one lives, the fewer people there are.
  • …the fewer people there are similar to you in racial background…
  • the more things there are to remember and the more things there are that happened differently than we expected.
  • …the more chance there was of getting snagged on one of the myriad protrusions.

So it’s possible to suppose that for all speakers, a comparative correlative clause isn’t some kind of relative clause; it’s just a comparative phrase followed possibly by an ordinary that and then by an appropriate gappy clause. If you think you have a relative clause with a who or that, it’s really just part of a comparative noun phrase, and the gappy clause is just unspoken.

However, if that’s the case, then we should never find things like … uh-oh …

  • The more people that there are who develop a love of nature… (link)
  • The more people that there are getting desperate about eating and surviving… (link)
  • The more people that there are living downtown… (link)

Probably, all these ways of creating or parsing a comparative correlative structure are out there, with different speakers arriving at their own interpretation of how they work, and never realizing that other speakers might have arrived at some other interpretation.

Posted in Comparative correlatives | Leave a Comment »

Correlatively Comparatively Speaking, Part II

Posted by Neal on March 14, 2013

On Fritinancy, Nancy Friedman commented on a poster for a walk for breast cancer. Here’s the poster, lifted from Nancy’s blog post:

Survival walks beat death marches.

Nancy’s reaction:

As I see it, the line needs a second relative pronoun to be properly parallel in structure: “The more of us who walk, the more of us who survive.”

She wanted another who in there so that the two parts of this comparative correlative would be maximally parallel, but in fact, there are some speakers who wouldn’t even put a who in the first part. As for me, I’m not even sure what I would do. (Maybe I should do a search on this blog and see if I’ve generated any data that would say.)

The uncertainty comes from the fact that comparative correlatives like the one Nancy found are a little different from others. In many comparative correlative clauses, the comparative part — the X-er — corresponds to a gap in the remainder of the clause. This gap might be a direct object gap, as in (1) below; an indirect object gap, as in (2); or a prepositional object gap, as in (3). It can even be a predicative adjective gap, as in (4), adverbial gap, as in (5).

  1. DO gap: the more [I learn __]
  2. IO gap: the more people [you give __ a break]
    (if you allow extraction from ditransitive VPs)
  3. PrepObj gap: the more people [we talk to ___]
  4. PredAdj gap: the happier [we'll be ___]
  5. Adv gap: the more [we get together ___]

Interestingly, all these kinds of comparative clauses can also have a relative pronoun before the gappy part of the clause, as if it were an actual relative clause. Even the gaps for predicative adjectives and adverbs can take a relativizer, as long as it’s that. Instead of making up examples this time, here are some from Google:

  1. DO gap: The more people who [you can get ___ to dine with us that day]
  2. IO gap: the more people that [you give __ a break]
    (OK, I did make this one up)
  3. PrepObj gap: the more people that [you can connect with ___]
  4. PredAdj gap: “The Smarter That [I Think I Am ___], the Dumber [I Get ___]“
  5. Adv gap: The faster that [the boat goes ___]

Example (9) is interesting in that it’s like Nancy’s example: a relativizer in the first clause (the smarter that I think I am), but not in the second (the dumber I get). But let’s leave aside relative pronouns for the moment and talk about the main difference between Nancy’s example and other comparative correlatives. It’s easier to see if we put some brackets in them and gap labels, the way we did with the others:

  1. Subj gap: the more of us who [___ walk]
  2. Subj gap: the more of us [___ survive]

In these examples, the comparative phrase the more of us corresponds to a subject gap in the remainder of the clause. In (11), this linkage is handled by the relative pronoun who. In (12), it isn’t. If you think of comparative clauses as relative-clause structures, then probably you don’t like (12), because in English, you typically can’t delete relative pronouns that connect to a subject gap. (The exceptions are in sentences such as There was a farmer had a dog.) But if you never thought of comparative clauses as a kind of relative clause — in other words, if you just thought of them as the, plus a phrase containing a comparative adjective/adverb/determiner, plus a clause missing that same kind of phrase — then there should be no problem with (12).

If you’re one of the speakers who are OK with (12), and in general don’t think of comparative correlatives as a species of relative clause structure, I suspect that you still might be comfortable uttering comparative clauses like the more of us who walk. The reason involves a third kind of comparative correlative that I haven’t been talking about. However, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of worms, which will have to come in a separate post. See you then!

Posted in Comparative correlatives, Semantics, Syntax | 6 Comments »

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!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fillers and gaps, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations), Wide-scoping operators | 13 Comments »

Words to Sound Smart by Using

Posted by Neal on November 7, 2011

Grammar Girl has yet another book coming out this week, in what looks like it’s becoming a franchise: the 101 Words series. Back in August, I gave away a copy of 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know and 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again, and in the next few days I’ll be running a contest to win a free copy of the latest one, 101 Words to Sound Smart. More on that in a subsequent post. Today, I’m interested in the syntax of that title.

Some infinitival phrases that modify nouns are like relative clauses, because they have to have a “gap” that the noun is understood to fill. Indeed, they’re sometimes called infinitival relative clauses. For example, there’s this title of a book full of blank pages and prompts for artistic inspiration: 642 Things to Draw. The transitive verb draw is missing a direct object, and things fills this gap. For an infinitival relative clause with a subject gap, how about Tales to Give You Goosebumps? The verb phrase give you goosebumps doesn’t have a subject, but it’s understood that the tales will handle the task of giving you goosebumps. The gap could even be the object of a preposition, as in Stories to Curl Up With (a title I made up), in which the stories are the things with which someone could curl up.

But in 101 Words to Sound Smart, there is no gap. There’s no gap in the verb phrase sound smart. There’s no subject gap, either, unless the meaning is that the words themselves sound smart. I suppose that could be one way to parse the title, using smart in its extended sense of things that smart people use (the same way stupid can refer to things that only stupid people would like, and similar cases). But I think that if that’s what Grammar Girl meant, she would have called it 101 Words That Sound Smart, making it more of a certainty. The infinitival relative conveys more of a sense of potentiality: things that you could draw, tales that could give you goosebumps.

The meaning that I’m pretty sure the title is intended to convey is that these are words that you can use in order to sound smart. In other words, to sound smart is a purpose infinitival. These are much more common as modifiers of verbs than as modifiers of nouns. In fact, when I first heard this book title, I would have said that purpose infinitivals couldn’t modify nouns. I would have said that words to sound smart was ungrammatical, and that the only ways to get at that meaning of purpose would be to use an infinitival relative clause. One way would be with an object gap, as in 101 Words to Sound Smart by Using. That sounds really awkward, though; maybe even ungrammatical in its own right (because of so-called relative clause islands). So a better option would be with a subject gap: 101 Words to Make You Sound Smart.

However, a few days after I encountered words to sound smart, I was looking at the cover of Family Tree magazine (my Aunt Jane is really into genealogy and got me a subscription), and saw the teaser for one of the articles: websites to find your ancestors. You could take this to mean websites that will find your ancestors for you, but it’s actually talking about websites that will help you find your ancestors. In other words, it’s another purpose infinitival modifying a noun.

As I was looking over this post, I noticed the phrase contest to win a free copy, with a purpose infinitival following the noun contest, and it sounds completely normal to me. My gut feeling is that the infinitival is a complement to the noun, and not a modifier, but I haven’t thought about it enough to be certain.

Anyway, nouns modified by purpose infinitivals, are hard to search for in corpora, because you can’t conveniently look for entire infinitival phrases that contain no gaps. For that reason, I don’t know how common this kind of construction is; all I know is that it’s unusual to my ear, but that it must not be too strange for others. How do they sound to you? Reactions and additional examples are welcome in the comments.

Posted in Books, Relative clauses | 24 Comments »

Whose Camera…?

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2011

As I was saying in the last post, last weekend Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s spring campout. This year it was at Flint Ridge State Memorial, a place I’d never heard about before now, but where I learned not only that flint was a sedimentary rock (I’d have guessed metamorphic off the top of my head), but also that the current thinking is that it was formed from crushed and compressed sponges. When we took the tour of the visitor center, the guide mentioned that any flint found at the site had to stay there, and asked why. Adam volunteered that eventually there would be no flint left.

“Right,” the guide said. “If–“

But Adam wasn’t done yet. “And then they’d just have to call it ‘Ridge’.”

At one point during the weekend, a couple other parents and I were sitting in the shade on a picnic table while our scouts practiced making a fire in the 90-degree weather. Fred, the Cubmaster, came over to take a seat, too, but noticed my camera lying on the table. He asked me, “Is this your camera?” I said yes. Moving it aside, he said, “I didn’t want to sit on it.”

Well, that was nice of him. He didn’t want to sit on my camera. But what was the connection between his hesitation to sit on it and the fact that it was mine? I wondered silently if he would he have sat on it if it had been someone else’s camera. More specifically, I thought the words

*Whose camera would you have sat on it if it was __?

I didn’t say it out loud, though, because the syntax was so bad. The meaning was sensible, but it’s difficult or sometimes impossible to make this kind of question in English. This unspoken sentence is an example of something called an island violation. If you consider the sentence to be a piece of land, the wh word or phrase at the beginning of an interrogative or relative clause is sometimes thought of as having been “moved” from its more usual location to the front of the sentence. For example, in Whose camera would you have sat on __?, the wh phrase whose camera has been “moved” from its position as the object of on to the front of the sentence. But there are some constructions that are like islands, surrounded by water that a wh phrase can’t move over in order to get to the front of the sentence. The moved phrase is also sometimes called the filler, and the place it moved from is called the gap.

The island violation in my sentence was the “adjunct island violation”. Adjunct refers to a phrase that modifies another something; in this case, the adverbial clause if it was (whose camera) modifies the clause would you have sat on it. The adverbial clause (i.e. the adjunct) is an island that doesn’t allow whose camera to escape and go to the front of the sentence.

As for why islands exist, linguists still argue. For this one, my impression is that this sentence crashes because you start out parsing it as Whose camera would you have sat on, assuming that whose camera fills in a gap after on, but then comes an it, and you have to look farther and deeper for the gap that whose camera is to fill. But other times, islands do allow things to escape; for example, there’s the subtype of adjunct island called the relative clause island that I discuss in this post.

Trying to think of a workaround phrasing for my sentence, I came up with

Which person X is such that if the camera had belonged to X, you would have sat on it?

Yeah, that works, especially the person X is such that part!

One other highlight from the campout: Adam got his first taste of Spam. He liked it.

Posted in Adam, Fillers and gaps, You're so literal! | 18 Comments »

What I Want

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2011

Back in March, I blogged about an ambiguity in a line in a Garth Brooks song: What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. One reading was the “specificational” reading, which I paraphrased like this:

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart.

The other was the “predicational” reading:

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart.

Commenters Glen and ran had some questions about possible other readings, and I responded in a comment:

It occurred to me that since we’re talking about two ways of parsing two different things (the be, the wh clause), we should be able to construct four kinds of sentences. I’m going to lay these out more clearly in my next post, and situate the two (or more?) readings of this sentence in that framework.

Several posts later, this is that “next post”. I’ll start with the two meanings of be. Predicational be takes its subject and declares it to be in some set of things. For example, in Osama bin Laden is dead, the is declares Osama bin Laden to be in the set of things that are dead. The be in progressive tenses is a kind of predicational be. For example, in Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan, the was declares Osama bin Laden to have been in the set of things that live in Pakistan.

Specificational be, on the other hand, takes its subject and equates it with its complement. For example, in Osama bin Laden was the leader of Al-Qaeda, the was equates two things: Osama bin Laden, and the leader of Al Qaeda (at a time in the past, of course). One property of specificational be is that it lets you reverse its subject and complement. Thus, you can also say The leader of Al-Qaeda was Osama bin Laden. You can’t typically do this with predicational be: Note the badness of ?Dead is Osama bin Laden, barring some kind of poetic register.

Now I’ll take up the two kinds of wh clauses. A wh clause such as what I want could be an indirect question, as in He’s asking what I want. In this sentence, what I want has whatever meaning you give to questions. (Many semanticists take it to be the set of propositions that could answer that question: {“I want money”, “I want a new car”, “I want another Everlasting Gobstopper”,…}) You could paraphrase this sentence as He’s asking the question of what I want.

The wh clause could also be a fused relative, as in They’re out of what I want. In this case, what I want refers to a particular thing, such as Everlasting Gobstoppers. You could paraphrase this sentence as They’re out of the thing that I want.

So with the ambiguity between predicational and specificational be, plus the ambiguity between indirect questions and fused relatives, we should be able to get four kinds of meaning for a sentence with a wh clause for a subject and be for a verb.

  1. Predicational be, indirect question for subject

    An example of this combination would be:

    What I want isn’t relevant to the discussion.

    In this sentence, we know that what I want is an indirect question because you can paraphrase it as The question of what I want isn’t relevant….. Also, you can’t (at least, not very easily) paraphrase it as *The thing that I want isn’t relevant to the discussion. This sentence is using predicational be: It states that (the question of) what I want is in the set of things that are not relevant. Before I move on to the next combination, I’ll modify the sentence to have predicational be in a progressive tense:

    (The question of) what we should do is bothering me.

    Note the non-reversibility of subjects and complements here: ?Not relevant to the discussion is what I want, ?Bothering me is (the question of) what we should do.

    This combination of predicational be and an indirect question subject corresponds to a reading I didn’t think of for What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. It’s the one suggested by my brother Glen: that the topic (or question) of what she’s doing now is a painful one.

  2. Predicational be, fused relative for subject

    I’ll take the first example sentence, and replace the adjective phrase relevant to the discussion with something that is more appropriate for a concrete entity:

    What I want is expensive.

    Now what I want is a fused relative. You can replace it with The thing that I want, but not with The question of what I want. We have predicational is placing the thing that I want in the set of things that are expensive. And now for this combination with predicational be in a progressive tense:

    What I eat is clogging my arteries.

    Final evidence that this is predicational be is the non-reversibility of the subjects and complements: ?Expensive is what I want, ?Clogging my arteries is what I eat.

    This combination of predicational be and a fused relative subject was what I called the predicational meaning of What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart.

  3. Specificational be, indirect question subject

    For this combination, I’m going to use two indirect questions, one of them a where question, just to highlight that these wh clauses are not referring to individual entities.

    {What you want / Where we should go} is the question before us.

    We can tell that the wh clauses are indirect questions because we can replace them with The question of {what you want / where we should go}, and we cannot replace them with the thing that you want or *the thing that we should go (which is not even syntactically well-formed). Specificational is equates these questions with the question before us. Note the reversibility this time: The question before us is {what you want / where we should go}.

    This combination of specificational be and an indirect question doesn’t correspond to any of the meanings proposed for What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. It would mean something like, “The question of what she’s now doing consists of the activity of tearing me apart,” which makes no sense. It was so hard for me to construct that meaning just now that it’s no wonder I didn’t identify it back then.

  4. Specificational be, fused relative subject

    The combination of specificational be and a fused relative subject has, through other channels, acquired its own special name in the field of syntax: pseudo-cleft. An example:

    What I want is money.

    Because What I want is a fused relative, we can replace it with The thing that I want; we cannot replace it with The question of what I want, at least not sensibly. We can see that the is is specificational, as it identifies the thing I want as money. Note also the reversibility: Money is what I want.

    This last combination corresponds to what I called the specificational meaning of What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart.

So there they are, all four possible interpretations of a wh clause subject with be. It is so darn tricky to sort out all these meanings that I’m almost tempted to go Whorfian, and say that because of this ambiguity our English syntax has set up for us, it’s harder for us to talk about these distinctions. Even when you set about disambiguating them, making an unambiguous paraphrase is pretty tough. I’d be interested in hearing from speakers of languages in which predicational and specificational be are different words, and/or indirect questions and fused relatives have different syntax. Do you have a hard time keeping these meanings straight?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Lexical semantics | 6 Comments »

What She’s Doin’ Now Is Tearin’ Me Apart

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2011

Back in January I wrote about an unusual sentence with a fused relative clause (aka a free relative). At the time, I wrote, “This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudo-cleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.”

Looks like I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so here we go. The song is “What She’s Doing Now,” performed by Garth Brooks on his 1990 album No Fences. The title shows up in the lyrics, when Brooks sings that the season of the year

…makes me wonder
What she’s doin’ now.

Nothing remarkable so far. What she’s doing now is the indirect-question form of What is she doing now?, serving as the complement of the verb wonder. But in the chorus, Brooks sings

… what she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart
Fillin’ up my mind and emptyin’ my heart

Now we’ve got ourselves an ambiguity, and it’s partly attributable to the ambiguity of the -ing form of any verb. Let’s take the phrase blogging about linguistics in two sentences:

My hobby is blogging about linguistics.
I’m blogging about linguistics right now.

In the first sentence, blogging about linguistics is a noun phrase (more specifically, a gerund phrase), and is is identifying it as my hobby. In the second sentence, blogging about linguistics is a participial phrase; it hooks up with is to form a verb phrase that talks about someone blogging.

Now let’s go back to the sentence in the chorus, and take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as gerunds. In that case, the meaning is basically

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the specificational meaning. (Free relatives in this kind of specificational construction are also known as pseudo-clefts.) On the other hand, if we take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as participles, then what we have after the is is a great big participial phrase, which joins with the is to form a verb phrase. The meaning in this case would be

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the predicational meaning. This is the easier reading to get, in my opinion.

The other thing that makes this specificational/predicational ambiguity possible is the fact that both people and abstract things are capable of tearin’ one apart, fillin’ up one’s mind, and emptyin’ one’s heart. If we replace those verbs with something that only a human (or at least something animate) can do, then we only get the specificational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is drinkin’, smokin’, and partyin’ all night. (X = the act of d., s., and p.a.n.)

If we replace it with something that doesn’t make sense with a human subject, we get only the predicational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is disturbing and possibly illegal. (Whatever X is, it is d. and p.i.)

So how about that, eh? I told you you’d love this ambiguity! Was I right, or was I right? (This is pretty much the same ambiguity, by the way, that I discussed in 2006 for What we waste is a disgrace.)

However, now that I look back on the lyrics, I wonder if the chorus was actually intentionally ambiguous. I’ve always assumed it was, and gotten a linguistic thrill out of hearing it, the same as I get with If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?, but I don’t really see anything in the song as a whole anymore that would suggest the writers wanted you to get both meanings. What do you think?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Gerunds and participles, Music | 7 Comments »

Who Told Me Was My Dad

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2011

Driving home from Doug and Adam’s piano lessons last night, I heard a fluffy piece on NPR about Elizabeth Hughes, an eight-year-old girl who was singing the national anthem at a hockey game (well, before the game, actually), when her mike cut out, and the entire crowd picked up from where her sound went out. Well, there were probably some people in there who were just mouthing it, but enough sang to bring the song to a rousing finish. Mee-chele Norris was interviewing Hughes, and asked her how she happened to be picked to sing at the event. Hughes answered:

Who told me about this was my Dad.

Wow! A fused relative with who! A fused relative construction is something that looks like an interrogative (in this case, who told me), but acts like a noun phrase (in this case, by serving as the subject of was my dad). Huddleston and Pullum call this kind of structure a fused relative in CGEL because, to use this example to illustrate, you can think of it as equivalent to a noun modified by a relative clause: the person who told me about this. But in what the girl actually said, the who standing in for the whole string the person who. We get fused relatives all the time with what; for example, That’s what I want, which you could defuse (as it were) into That’s the thing that I want. (This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudocleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.) Shoot, I even used a fused relative headed by what myself a couple of sentences ago. Did you see it?

Anyway, back to fused relatives with who. I’ll yield the floor to Geoff Pullum, who wrote about them on Language Log in December 2005 after hearing a barista ask, “Can I help who’s next?”:

In Rockport, Massachusetts, I observed another grammatical construction that might well have been thought extinct for many decades, but like the ivory-billed woodpecker and the supplementary relative that-clause, it seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment. I was waiting in line in a small coffee shop and I heard a young woman behind the counter call for the next customer by saying “Can I help who’s next?”. This wasn’t my first observation; I hear the phrase in Santa Cruz, California, too (and since first posting this I have heard that it is familiar elsewhere, from ice cream scoopers in Cleveland, Ohio, to bank tellers in Gainesville, Florida). So it’s not local; it’s spread across the entire breadth of the continent. What’s interesting about it is that it’s a fused relative construction with human denotation, headed by the relative pronoun lexeme who. And that is a possibility that has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years.

In general, fused relatives with who just aren’t used in contemporary English. In Shakespeare’s time it was commonplace (recall Iago’s remark in Othello: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands). It survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.

Except in this peculiar use in coffee shops and the like, because in Can I help who’s next? we have a fused relative construction: it’s the object of help.

Like Pullum, I had noted the atypicality of Can I help who’s next?, and figured it was just an exceptional piece of syntax that wasn’t part of some bigger pattern. But now, from an eight-year-old girl, we have another fused relative headed by who, in a completely different context, used as a subject instead of a verb, and not part of some set, formulaic expression. Could this kind of fused relative be making a comeback, or was the phrasing unintentional? You can hear Elizabeth Hughes and decide for yourself. The story is also featured on the NPR blog, and if you listen to the first audio clip there, you’ll hear the phrase at about 1:19.

I was still thinking about this fused relative as we pulled into the garage, and Norris was asking Hughes if, since she never got to (audibly) finish her solo at the hockey game, she’d like to do it right now on the radio. I quickly turned off the ignition and set the parking brake, and the boys and I got right out of the car, just in time not to hear Hughes say, “No, that’s OK, I’m cool.”

Posted in Diachronic, Fused relatives | 4 Comments »

 
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