Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category

What’s Happening with Because?

Posted by Neal on July 12, 2013

My brother Glen send me a link to this article on the best Disney Pixar movies as rated by children. He’d noticed something about the kids’language, and was wondering if I would notice it, too. I did. It had to do with their use of because. Here are all the children’s comments that used because:

  1. “Because there’s bad guys, and Mater, and Lightning McQueen, and SPIES!” (Max, 5)
  2. Elliot, 4, disagreed, saying, “I didn’t like it, because it has rats, and I don’t like rats.”
  3. Max, 5, said it was one of his favorites, “Because Evil Emperor Zurg!”
  4. [T]hey liked it “because there’s a turtle that’s so funny, it swims away” (Lily, 6)
  5. Some younger viewers took the opposite view, giving high ratings because “race cars are funny” (Wilson, 4), and “because they race” (Gideon, 4).
  6. Gideon, age 4, gave it his highest rating “because I like Mike Wazowski,” while Franny, age 8, did the same “because I like Sully.”
  7. Others, like Madison, 4, liked it for different reasons: “Because the day care. I like the day care parts.”
  8. Alex, 5, listed Up as his favorite, “Because Russell throws his GPS out the window and he’s so funny and he can make birds with his hands.”
  9. Reasons included “Because Sully can really roar” (Max, 5), “Because Mike has braces in his teeth” (Alex, 5), and “Because it was funny and a monster fell off a bed” (Harry, 4).
  10. Liam, 6, agreed about the roaring, listing Monsters U as his favorite “because the part where Sully has the big roar and scares all the policemen.”
  11. Franny, 6, gave it a high rating “because I like the dad.”
  12. Elliot, 4, said, “I didn’t like it, because Sid is mean and he smashes all the toys.”

Did you notice it? Items 3, 7, and 10 had because followed by a noun phrase, and nothing else; in other words, used in the same way that Glen, I, and most other English speakers would use because of. Although I can use because to introduce just a noun phrase, for me it’s a metalinguistic use. For example, if I were fumbling for words, I might say something like

…because, you know, the thing you were talking about.

It seems to me that somewhere a few years ago, when a long-awaited new release of the video game Skyrim had just come out, I saw an xkcd comic, or a tweet from Ed Cormany, saying something about not doing what they should have been doing, “because Skyrim.” I was unable to find the comic or tweet or whatever it was, but again, the impression I got was that the speaker didn’t have available the working memory needed in order to construct a full clause to explain, because they are so engrossed in thinking about or playing their new game, and they figure that’s all the explanation their audience really needs anyway.

Glen brought up some other metalinguistic examples in which because introduces a single-word or single-phrase exclamation. He quoted one from a reviewer’s synopsis of the TV show he used to write for:

The Fringies arrive at a giant hanger on a military base where they are waved in by some soldiers after a meandering exchange between Bishop and one of the soldiers regarding grape bubble gum because MAD SCIENTIST!

Simply saying “Mad scientist!” all by itself is an acceptable utterance. Although it’s not a complete sentence, it tells the listener, “Look, a mad scientist!” As a complement to because, it seems to say, “…Bishop is a mad scientist, as we regular viewers well know, and has a powerful sweet tooth, for milkshakes, red licorice, and other hip and quirky candy, and by now I shouldn’t even have to tell you this.” The because plus just the noun phrase, uttered with excitement, conveys sarcasm or disdain, too, it seems. Glen says that this particular reviewer uses this particular phrasing a lot. From the same review:

Bishop just goes ahead and snorts one of the serums without knowing which it is, because MAD SCIENTIST! … There is also some chimpanzee-related wackiness on Bishop’s part. Because MAD SCIENTIST!

Here are a couple of examples with NPs other than mad scientist; namely, cocaine and science, both from the same blog post, and both conveying sarcasm or disdain:

He makes her nervous. But then he offers her cocaine, and hey, cocaine! She sets aside all her misgivings, and gets in the car with a guy she doesn’t know, who makes her nervous and who is “disconnected”.

Because cocaine? [NW: notice the parallel with the earlier hey, cocaine! standing in for an entire clause.]

Women don’t lie about rape because SCIENCE!

Glen speculated that the children in the article heard metalinguistic usages of because, and learned the syntax without the sarcasm. I don’t have enough data to know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It reminds me a lot of how duh started out as an imitation of stereotyped inarticulate phonation from a mentally handicapped person, and didn’t really sound like a word, but now is uttered with the same intonation as any old interjection: Duh! It also parallels other, well-known linguistic processes: Stronger and more specific meanings become weaker and more general over time; and words that express content get “grammaticalized” until they have only functional meanings. The metalinguistic-to-ordinary progression is something that I haven’t read about in textbooks or the literature–though relevant sources are welcome in the comments! So are your own encounters with because+NP.

Posted in Diachronic, Kids' entertainment, Movies, Syntax, TV, Variation | 6 Comments »

At the Movies

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2013

Over the weekend, Doug, Adam, the wife, and I went to see Now You See Me, and it was really good! It was so good that I let my wife go and get the family’s large bucket of popcorn refilled in the middle of the movie instead of doing it myself. I also never bothered going out to refill my large pop. I don’t have much to say regarding linguistics about the movie, except that I wonder how much of the overseas audience will know that they’re supposed to mentally supply “…now you don’t” to the title. (Does that catchphrase exist in other languages?) But there were two things to comment on before the movie.

As the wife was getting our tickets at the automated kiosk, she said, “Wow, there are only seven seats left!” Really? We were 20 minutes early! All the same, we hustled toward the ticket-taker, who said as he handed us our stubs, “That’ll be house seven, on your left.”

That misunderstanding was so funny I had to make a note of it on my phone once we took our seats in house 7. But after standing in line to buy that big tub of popcorn and the refillable drinks to which I have alluded, I had to hurry up with the memo, because the part of the trailer saying how it was time to silence and put away all cell phones and mobile devices was coming on.

Then the previews began, and the first one had a mysterious hooded figure telling someone about her destiny. Doug leaned over me to whisper to Adam, “It’s Assassin’s Creed!” But a minute later, his hopes disintegrated when the preview turned out to be for something called The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. However, I heard a sentence in the preview that I wanted to write down–but I’d silenced and put away my cell phone! So instead, I took my pen and wrote as best I could in the dark:

Not bad, for writing mostly blind

See that? There’s only so long you can hide from the truth. It’s another one like There’s only so small I can cut it and There’s only so memorized the thing can get. An existential There is that introduces not a noun phrase, but an adjective or adverb. (Adverb, in this case.) Nice!

Then we finally got to the feature itself, and I saw a production logo that I wasn’t familiar with. It turned out to be for “K/O Paper Products.” Bob Orci’s company! I hadn’t known they were producing this movie! All I knew about was that big sci-fi epic that had their name all over it this summer, and their Ender’s Game movie coming out this fall. But being as how Bob regaled Doug and Adam with magic tricks at the rehearsal dinner for their Uncle Glen’s wedding last fall, seeing an Orci-produced movie about magicians was even more fun.

Posted in Movies, Syntax, The wife | 3 Comments »

More Double Passives in Norwegian

Posted by Neal on June 6, 2013

A topic that I’ve been blogging about every now and then since before I even had my own blog was what I’ve been calling double passives. The very first example I wrote about, and the one that I still consider my canonical example of this construction in English, is this one:

(One person was killed, and) others were attempted to be killed.

The subject of the main verb, others, seems to have been promoted all the way up from the embedded verb kill, and along the way, both the main verb and the embedded verb have been put into the passive voice.

Five years ago, I blogged about how I’d learned that double passives existed in Hebrew, Norwegian, and Danish, too. The example I quoted in that post was from a 2001 paper by Lars Hellan:

Jon ble forsøkt skutt
Jon was attempt(PAST PART.) shoot(PAST PART.)
“Jon was attempted to be shot.”

As Hellan noted, sentences like these have a passive main verb and embedded verb, but the embedded verb is not an infinitive like in English. It’s just a past participle. If I had given a more literal translation, it would have been “Jon was attempted shot.” All the same, it looked like a double passive to me.

Now, I’ve been reading a paper from just last year by Helge Lødrup, who agrees that double passives exist in Norwegian, but argues that sentences like that last example aren’t them. Instead, he offers lots of examples that look even more like double passives in English, in that the passive embedded verbs are infinitives instead of past participles. He doesn’t call them double passives; he uses the term non-raising passives with passive infinitives. I think I’ll stick with double passive. Here are the first three that he gives in his introduction, with my preferred translations added:

  1. Tydeligvis kan ikke slike lys unngåes å misbrukes fra tid til annen.
    obviously can not such lights avoid-PASS to misemploy-PASS from time to other
    “Obviously, one cannot avoid that such lights are misemployed from time to time.”
    [NW: "Obviously, such lights can't be avoided being abused from time to time."]
  2. en beskjed om at vaskemaskinen må huskes å slås på
    a message about that the washing.machine must remember-PASS to turn-PASS on
    “a message that you should remember to turn the washing machine on”
    [NW: "a message that the washing machine must be remembered to be turned on"]
  3. viktige stridsspørsmål blir unnlatt å presiseres i den politiske behandlingen
    important issues are neglected to clarify-PASS in the political process
    “They neglect clarifying important issues in the political process.”
    [NW: "Important issues are neglected to be clarified in the political process."]

So these are a much clearer counterpart to English double passives. Example 1, with unngåes “avoided”, is not as much like English as the others, because this verb seems to take an infinitive in Norwegian, whereas it takes a gerund in English: avoid doing. Out of curiosity, though, I looked to see if I could find double passives with avoid in English, and I did find this specimen:

Nevertheless, there are some key foods to avoid administering, although they really should stick to just their diet. Below is a list of foods that should be avoided being given to your pet at all costs. (link)

Lødrup has several reasons for arguing that these English-like double passives are not the same kind of phenomenon as the ones that Hellan wrote about, which he and Hellan refer to as complex passives. First of all, there’s the past participle-vs-infinitive thing. For another thing, only a few verbs can be the main verb for a complex passive, including try, whereas many verbs can be the main verb in one of the double passives. In addition, the few verbs that can head complex passives can’t have dummy subjects (e.g. There), but some of the verbs that can head double passives can. It’s like observing that in English, you can say There is believed to have been an earthquake, but not *There was attempted to be killed.

Having shown how these double passives are different from complex passives, Lødrup then says what they’re the same as: long passives. Long passives are like double passives, except that the embedded infinitive is active. For example, the double passive Others were attempted to be killed would be Others were attempted to kill as a long passive. Surprisingly, Lødrup finds some of these in Norwegian, though they’re less common than Norwegian double passives. By the end of the paper, Lødrup has abandoned the clunky name non-raising passives with passive infinitives in favor of putting these double passives and the long passives under a single label of long passive, though I will stick to having two names. Lødrup also presents examples of double passives (with actual infinitives) and long passives in Swedish and Danish, and takes double passives to be a case of something called verbal feature agreement.

It’s great to get this new information and data about double passives! If you have them in your language (whether English or something else), let me know in a comment!

Posted in Double passives | Leave a Comment »

Come In, Be Productive, or Just Relax

Posted by Neal on May 29, 2013

My sister Ellen got married this past weekend, and we’re all happy for her. (You know, the one whose father read to her when she was young, who was subjected to stupid linguistic humor from her brothers as a girl, who graduated from UTexas, earned her MD, and is now doing her residency?) One thing I’ve admired about Ellen since she started dating is that she doesn’t tolerate whiny or disrespectful guys. She dated some losers along the way (and who doesn’t?), but when their true nature became apparent, she dumped ‘em. This guy has passed her filter, and we’re glad to have him in the family.

Anyway, during our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the way back home, I noticed this sign outside a lounge that classier people than you get to hang out in:

Choose one. No, two! But not the last two.

Syntactically, this coordination is unremarkable. No weird multiple-level stuff going on, no right-node wrapping, or gapping, or other weird non-parallelisms or coordinations of different kinds of phrases. We have three imperative clauses joined by or: come in, be productive, just relax. Semantically, though, it doesn’t work for me. I think this was supposed to be a nested coordination, like this:

[Come in and [be productive or just relax]].

Unless, of course, the intended meaning is a three-way choice between coming in and doing whatever; staying out and being productive; and staying out and relaxing.

In other coordinations that seem to be missing a conjunction (i.e. the multiple-level coordinations such as sick (and) twisted and smells like old socks), the missing conjunction is the same as the one that isn’t missing. But here, the missing conjunction is and, while the audible one is or. So now the question is whether this is simply a mistake, or a variation in grammar as widespread as multiple-level coordinations? Since it’s the first example of its kind that I’ve found, I’m calling it an error. What do you think?

Posted in Multiple-level coordination, Other weird coordinations, Semantics | 7 Comments »

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 »

Bad Habits

Posted by Neal on April 26, 2013

I saw a magazine cover that had a teaser for an article by Dr. Oz. The list of things I could learn in his “Healthy-Life Handbook” included “Facts You Must Know,” “Tests You Need Most,” and this:

Bad Habits to Break

Let’s see, what would be a bad habit to break? Getting some exercise every day — it would be bad to break that habit, if I had it. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables — breaking that habit would be a bad thing, too. What else? Does not smoking count as a habit? It would be bad to break that habit by quitting not smoking.

When I looked inside the magazine at the article itself, the actual habits in the list consisted of eating fat-free stuff that has added sugar; taking pills to stop pain instead of finding its root cause; sitting too much; and overrelying on technology.

In other words, Oz wasn’t talking about habits it would be bad to break; he was talking about bad habits that you should break. In fact, the wording on the list title inside the magazine made this clear: It called them “Bad Habits You Should Drop.” Probably a lack of space on the magazine cover led to the ambiguous wording I saw there. The reading that the editors intended for bad habits to break corresponds to this parse:

Bad habits -- let's break them!

The adjective bad modifies the noun habits, and that whole chunk is modified by to break. (The label Inf/NP means an infinitive phrase has a noun phrase gap. To break bad habits would be an Inf, but without that direct object, it’s Inf/NP.) I’ll call this the intersective reading, because the meaning is the intersection of two sets: habits that are bad, and habits that you should break. This interpretation implies that there are bad habits that you shouldn’t break, which might have been one factor that pushed me in the direction of the other reading.

That other reading corresponds to a different parse:

It wouldn't be good to break these habits.

Here, the adjective bad and the infinitive phrase to break work together to form a meaning something like “X such that breaking X is bad”. This sort of discontinuous adjective phrase wraps around the noun it modifies, habits, and we end up with “habits such that breaking them is bad”. In a 1983 paper, Michael Jones gives the name “property fusion” to this kind of adjective-infinitive meaning.

So I read “bad habits to break” with the “property fusion” meaning, instead of the intersectional meaning, and the result was a completely different set of habits. But if the phrase had instead been good habits to develop, the ambiguity would have been hardly noticeable. The fusional meaning of “habits that it would be good to develop” and the intersective meaning of “good habits that are also habits you can/should develop” are for all practical purposes the same. Or are they? What would be some good habits to develop that are actually impossible to develop?

Posted in Ambiguity, Syntax | 3 Comments »

Pillaged for Dead

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 5 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 | 5 Comments »

Anti-Passive! It’s Like a Passive for Ergative Languages!

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2013

This ain't no pasta!

Over the weekend, I speculated on how English might work as an ergative language. Today, on National Grammar Day, I’m taking it a step further into the reversed grammar of ergative languages, to show what might happen if you tried to use the passive voice in ergative English. What would that even look like, when our ergative English already has its transitive verbs agreeing with their patients?

In you’ve forgotten what that looks like, here’s the suite of sample sentences we arrived at in our morphologically and syntactically ergative version of English. The pronouns in red are in the ergative case; they denote agents who do things to others. The pronouns in blue are in the absolutive case; they denote either “subjects” (in this context, someone or something that performs an action which doesn’t directly affect someone or something else), or patients who are affected by an action.

    1. She kiss me.
    2. I kisses her.
    1. Her smiles.
    2. Me smile.

Before I go further, I need to comment on the vocabulary. First of all, the terms agent and patient have to be understood as referring not only to very obviously agentlike roles such as “hitter,” “writer,” and “creator,” and very patientlike roles such as “struck,” “written,” and “created,” but also to pairs such as “seer” and “seen,” or “one who loves” and “one who is loved.” This is true for ordinary English as well as our imaginary ergative variety.

Second, we saw earlier that the term subject has a specialized meaning when we’re talking about whether a language is ergative or not (or more concisely, its morphosyntactic alignment). It’s not just any subject; it’s the subject of an intransitive verb. So what term do we use when we want to talk about the subject of a transitive verb? In the last post, we called them agents, in keeping with the subject-agent-patient terminology of morphosyntactic alignment. But now, the agents aren’t going to be the … subjects? … anymore. In Language Universals and Linguistic Typology, Bernard Comrie’s attitude is “Tough noogies, welcome to the real world!” That is, it’s no simple matter crosslinguistically to say what’s a subject. Is it the thing that the verb agrees with? Maybe, but in some languages, transitive verbs agree with both their agents and their patients. So before reading further, say goodbye to your old notions of what’s a subject. The closest we’ll come is when we note which noun(s) a verb is agreeing with.

So now, onward to passives and antipassives. Ordinary English, as well as many other so-called “nominative-accusative languages” gives you two options for expressing a transitive verb. There’s the more straightforward option of the active voice, with agent as the noun that the verb agrees with (She kisses me; I kiss her); and the more complex passive voice, in which the patient is promoted to the place where verb agreement goes on, and the agent disappears or is expressed in a by phrase (I am kissed (by her); she is kissed (by me)).

In ergative English, the more straightforward option has the patient as the noun that the verb agrees with: She kiss me; I kisses her. The more complex option, analogous to the passive in ordinary English, is the antipassive. To show antipassive, I’ll use the passive morphology from ordinary English, to give you the maximum effect of how things are turned around here. In the antipassive, the agent gets promoted to agree with the noun, and the patient gets moved to the background:

  1. Me am kissed (by her). [Think of it as "I do some kissing (on her)."]
  2. Her is kissed (by me). [Think of it as "She does some kissing (on me)."]

That’s crazy!

Now actually, ergative English probably wouldn’t use an antipassive to express these thoughts. Just as ordinary English tends to use passive in situations where the agent is unknown, unimportant, or just less important than the patient; ergative languages tend to use antipassive when the patient is unknown, unimportant, or less important than the agent. (This is according to Ann Cooreman in “A Functional Typology of Antipassives”, in Voice: Form and Function, 1994, edited by Barbara Fox and Paul J. Hopper.) Functionally, they’re like detransitivized English verbs, such as eat, teach, write, etc. When you say “I’m eating,” or “I’ve taught for years,” or “Write every day,” the patient is assumed to be something obvious: food, courses or students, stuff you write.

Thinking about passives and antipassives, I thought about the disapproval of passives that speakers use to avoid placing (or accepting) blame. “Don’t say ‘Mistakes were made’! Admit your responsibility and just say, I made a mistake’!” If English were an ergative language, would English teachers tell their students, “Don’t say ‘Me am eaten!’ Take responsibility for your actions and say what you ate! Don’t try to gloss over it!”

Well, no, they wouldn’t, because all that was phrased in ordinary English. They’d say … let’s see … “Let no one say ‘Me am eaten’…” Ah, forget it! It was tricky enough to get my ergative examples straight as it was. Right now I am absolutely ergatived out!

Posted in Morphology, Passive voice, Syntax | 6 Comments »


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