Country Coordinations, Part I
Posted by Neal on October 19, 2004
Join us as our Week in Review reveals what femme rocker’s concert was the target of a chainsaw protest in the Northwest and who swore off rock ‘n’ roll after getting religion.
SC took it to mean that the same rocker had a concert protested and got religion, but in fact, it was two different people (Bonnie Raitt and Little Richard). I commented, saying that the only parse I could get was the intended one, with the question “what femme rocker’s concert was…” coordinated with the question “who swore off….” However, I have to admit that it’s only my literal-mindedness that kept me on track–even now, when I read the sentence there’s a tendency, quickly overridden, to get SC’s interpretation. My suspicion is that it has to do with the fact that most things that are coordinated have something to do with each other. When they don’t, the coordination is a non-sequitur, like this example from a 1965 paper in Language by Lila Gleitman:
I wrote my grandmother a letter yesterday and six men can sit in the back seat of a Ford.
The coordinated music-trivia questions have nothing at all to do with each other, beyond being two pieces of music-related trivia. For the casual reader to impute the most likely relationship between them when they’re coordinated is understandable.
Soon after reading SC’s post, I heard Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon” on the radio, and this line caught my attention:
No telling how many tears I’ve sat here and cried
or how many lies that I’ve lied
In academic English grammar, this coordination would be circled in red as a case of bad parallel structure. One of the coordinates, cried, is used as a transitive verb, whose direct-object slot is understood to be filled by tears. The other coordinate, though, is a verb phrase with nothing missing at all: sat here. Or to put it another way, you can say, “tears I’ve cried,” but you can’t say, “tears I’ve sat here.” When you coordinate them, though, it sounds pretty good. The song’s a nice rumba, too, though in the 90s people preferred to dance the “Cowboy Cha-Cha” to it.
There’s been quite a lot written about coordinations like these, and the most convincing analysis is that it’s, again, all about the coordinated elements being relevant to each other. Tears I’ve sat here and cried is OK, but *tears I’ve done the Cowboy Cha-Cha and cried isn’t. At least, not until you’ve established that there is some kind of a connection between crying and doing the Cowboy Cha-Cha.
I might as well finish this post with a couple of other of these coordinations that I’ve come across over the years:
“…its most important property, one that any theory of language must account for, or be discarded.
(Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man, 1982, p. 183)
Coming soon: My other favorite example of a weird coordination found in a country song!