Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Adam’s Stranded Determiners

Posted by Neal on August 26, 2004

A few months ago, Adam and I were working a puzzle. It was a big puzzle, a picture of a cat, and I was feeding Adam pieces with hints on where they should go. “This is part of his mouth,” I’d say, or “This is part of his ear,” or “This is part of his nose.” After a while Adam was picking up pieces on his own and asking me where to put them. He would always say:

What’s this part of his?

Out of context, that question sounds no more unusual than a question like “Who’s that friend of yours?” with the of+possessive following the noun. But after Adam said it a couple of times I realized that his question didn’t have the same structure as “Who’s that friend of yours?”, which I’ll represent like this:

[This part of his]NP is [what]?

The question actually had a structure like this:

[This]NP is part of his [what]?

He was turning my formulaic sentence “This is part of his [body part]” into a question, starting it off with what to stand in for the body part, doing the subject-verb inversion on the this and the is, and leaving the determiner his stranded at the end. Instead of what standing for the entire noun phrase consisting of his and the body part, it was standing for just the body part–in other words, the noun phrase minus its determiner. (There are various names for this kind of phrase, which can be longer than a single noun, but is not a full noun phrase. I’ll follow CGEL in calling it a nominal.)

Of course, stranding determiners while replacing their nominal buddy with what is completely illegal in the grammar of adult native speakers of English, and I wonder how long it will take Adam to get hip to this. During the past few weeks I’ve heard him strand other determiners, too:

  • What does it sound like a?
  • What’s it like the?

These determiners (a, the) aren’t possessives, so the theoretical ambiguity with the earlier question doesn’t even here; they’re inarguably cases of determiner stranding.

As of bathtime tonight, Adam’s grammar still permitted determiner stranding. He’d stranded one during supper, and I was thinking about it as I got him ready for his bath. I decided to ask him a few questions…

Neal: At supper, what did you eat all your?
Adam: Turkey sticks!

Correct! At supper, he’d eaten all seven of his pale, rubbery Gerber turkey sticks right away, but only maybe half of his watermelon chunks, and about five bites of his macaroni and cheese. And he evidently had no trouble at all with me stranding the determiner your in the question, and using what to stand for just a nominal, since he unhesitatingly answered with turkey sticks, not my turkey sticks.

By this time, Adam had picked up a comb off the counter and was trying to comb my hair with it. I asked him another question:

Neal: What are you combing my?
Adam: Hair!

That’s hair, not your hair. For Adam, what can definitely stand for a nominal. Can it stand for a full noun phrase, too? I tried one more question, this time with what replacing the full noun phrase, with no determiner left behind:

Neal: What are you flushing?
Adam: The potty!

The potty, not potty. For Adam, what is equally good as a noun phrase or a nominal. In one respect, this isn’t surprising, since finer category distinctions (such as noun phrase vs. nominal) tend to emerge later in kids’ language than gross distinctions such as noun vs. verb. But the ability to strand a determiner is surprising (at least to me).

I wonder what it is about Adam’s set of syntactic rules that allows him to do it, while my grammar won’t let me. I kind of wish I could. Wouldn’t it be useful? Suppose you’re a detective or an insurance claims auditor, investigating a burglary. If you ask, “What was stolen?” the answer will be everything that got stolen, and that’s fine if you want the whole picture at once. But if you can strand determiners, you can easily focus in on more specific information if you want to. Ask, “What did they steal the?” and the hearer knows you’re interested in just the unique items. Ask, “What did they steal a?” and the hearer knows you’re interested in non-unique items of which one was stolen. Items all of which were stolen: “What did they steal all the?”

This all reminds me of syntactic islands, phrases that you just can’t pull something out of in order to form a question (or relative clause, or various other constructions). For example, coordinate structures are often islands. You can’t say, “Who did you and go to the movie?” to ask who accompanied someone to the movie. I haven’t heard a name for an island formed by a determiner plus nominal, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were one.

2 Responses to “Adam’s Stranded Determiners”

  1. Aren’t you afraid that your little tests, like “What are you brushing my?”, might inadvertently reinforce Adam’s non-standard grammar?

  2. Neal said

    A little bit, but not enough to cause me to stop. One of the wonders of kids’ language acquisition is that they can acquire a language that for the most part matches that of their fellow speakers, despite messy, incomplete, and error-filled input.

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