Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Fused relatives’ Category

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 »

We Do What We Do

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2010

And now for a semantics-focused post on National Grammar Day. Actually, my syntax-focused post was drifting into semantics territory, when I talked about the likely and unlikely intended meanings for the sentence I was talking about. That’s OK: Although this post is mostly about an ambiguity in a sign, I’m going to use some syntactic diagrams. It’s hard to separate the two at times.

So, the sign I have in mind is one I saw for a mortgage broker. It had these encouraging words:

We do what we do to help people realize their dreams of home ownership.

The first time I read it, my reaction was, “Well, no kidding!” The sign seemed to be saying to me, “You know those things we do to help people realize their dreams of home ownership? Well, we do them.” Then the re-parse came through, and I arrived at the intended meaning: “You know those things we do? Well, we do them to help people realize their dreams of home ownership.”

The sentence was in perfectly good Standard English grammar, but there were two possible ways to structure it (i.e. two parses). The way that I happened upon first was the one diagrammed below. The tents above the words show how they clump together into phrases. Down at the bottom, the purpose infinitival phrase to help people… modifies the verb phrase (VP) do 1. (The 1 is a stand-in for the what that appears at the front of the fused relative clause.) The diagram shows this modifying relationship by having the to help people tent and the do 1 tent coming together under a bigger VP tent for do to help people. Then whole phrase what we do to help people… is the direct object of the do in the VP higher up in the diagram.

The purpose infinitival attaches to the smaller VP

The more sensible parse is this next one. Here, the infinitival phrase modifies not the little VP do 1, but the big VP do what we do. The diagram shows this by having the tent for the do what we do VP and the tent for to help people coming together under a tent for a big VP that houses them both: do what we do to help people.

The infinitival phrase attaches up high.

Enjoy the rest of National Grammar Day, and come back soon! If you have questions about grammar, send them to me at nealwhitman@yahoo.com, or address them to @LiteralMinded on Twitter. Some of them may find their way into future posts.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Fused relatives | Leave a Comment »

Whomever Is Never Actually Right

Posted by Neal on October 21, 2007

My wife and I watched this week’s episode of The Office last night, which featured the following scene (20:55 into the online version, accessible here):

Ryan: What I really want, honestly Michael, is for you to know it, so that you can communicate it to the people here, to your clients, to whomever.
Michael: [chuckle] OK.
Ryan: What?
Michael: It’s whoever, not whomever.
Ryan: No, it’s whomever.
Michael: No, whomever is never actually right. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Diachronic, Fused relatives, Prescriptive grammar, Pronouns | 19 Comments »

Hatless Syntax

Posted by Neal on February 10, 2007

I checked the iTunes store again, as I do every month or so, and this time they were there! Apple must have finally managed to cut a deal and get them on board. So at last, I was able to download both hits from, you guessed it, Men Without Hats.

Now that I’ve played them a few times, two thing have happened. One is that the hook from “Pop Goes the World” has begun to play in a repeating loop in my head, and will probably have to be purged by an application of “The Preamble” or “Can’t Behave”. The other is that I have noticed anew some unusual syntax from “The Safety Dance”. No, I’m not going to talk about the ambiguity of You can leave your friends behind, funny though it is. I’m referring to this line:

We can go where we want to,
A place where they will never find.

Nice example of an adverbial fused relative in the first line: The phrase where we want to [go] looks like an adverbial relative clause, suitable for modifying a noun, as in the park where we want to go. Semantically, however, it acts like a prepositional phrase, something like “to the place where we want to go”. But even that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. What gets to me is the second line, A place where they will never find. A place where they will never find? Never find what? Us? Then say it: a place where they will never find us!

Oh, but wait. That would be too many syllables, and it wouldn’t rhyme with friends behind. OK, then why not replace where with that, for a place that they will never find? You’d change the meaning a little bit, but not too much: It would be the place itself, not the people who go to it, that they would never find. But a place where they will never find just doesn’t work.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Fused relatives, Music, Relative clauses | 3 Comments »

Don’t Waste Disgraces

Posted by Neal on July 18, 2006

Local columnist Joe Blundo had an article today about the lack of participation in recycling programs in central Ohio. The headline read:

What we waste is a disgrace

Hmm, that headline looks like a pseudo-cleft, I thought to myself. If it really were a pseudo-cleft, it would mean the same thing as We waste a disgrace, just like What I want is a chocolate chip cookie means the same thing as I want a chocolate chip cookie. Ha, that’s funny!

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Ohioana, Syntax | 1 Comment »

Throw Away Whatever You Want

Posted by Neal on November 11, 2004

I caught Adam in the act today. He had the refrigerator door open and was happily sliding the temperature controls back and forth. He’d just slid the freezer setting to zero when I got to him, and I explained that he had just turned the freezer off. Did he know what had happened the last time he did that? The ice in the freezer melted, I told him, and the food in there spoiled. We had to throw it all away, even the stuff we liked.

Actually, it was a good opportunity to wipe all the crud off the shelves, and the ice tray has now been freed of the deformed and fused-together ice cubes and ice dust that had slowly been taking over. But Adam doesn’t need to know that. Besides, this clean freezer is like a shiny new doorknob on a drab, battered door: It just makes it even more obvious how much the refrigerator proper needs a good cleaning (or “needs cleaned,” as they say around here). When was the last time I cleaned it, anyway? Oh, yes, I remember…

[harp music here]

We were getting the house ready for my parents’ annual visit, and while my wife went out grocery shopping, my job was to clean the fridge. Before she left, my wife said:

Throw away whatever you want.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked. “I think a better plan is to throw out whatever I don’t want, and keep whatever I want!” Ah, I kill myself sometimes. My wife must have already been out the door, since I didn’t hear her laugh.

Anyway, I had to admire the way two different syntactic facts had worked together to make my one-liner possible. First is the two relevant senses of want. There’s the infinitive-taking want, as in I want to go home, with the meaning of “want to do something”. Then there’s the transitive want, as in I want a cookie, with the meaning of “want to have something”. The second fact is the existence of verb-phrase ellipsis–the omission of a verb phrase in examples like, “Maybe Jim will let you get away with this, but I won’t,” where a second “let you get away with this” is understood to finish out the “I won’t” part of the sentence.

So what my wife intended an infinitive-taking want with ellipsis of the infinitive, like this–

Throw away whatever you want [to throw away].

I took as a transitive want, meaning “want to have”:

Throw away whatever you want [to have].

[harp music taking us back to the present]

As for today though… well, I guess the fridge-fridge doesn’t look too bad compared to the freezer-fridge. If I can just hold out for a few weeks, maybe they’ll be comparably dirty again, and the problem will be solved.

Posted in Ambiguity, Ellipsis, Fused relatives | 2 Comments »

 
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