Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Country Coordinations, Part I

Posted by Neal on October 19, 2004

Before Semantic Compositions undertook a lengthy, five-post-long book review, he commented on a confusing coordination in a music-trivia question:

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)

Great. Now what am I going to watch and drink all day?
(character on Futurama, after losing his TV; thanks to Mike Daniels for this one)

Coming soon: My other favorite example of a weird coordination found in a country song!

4 Responses to “Country Coordinations, Part I”

  1. Anonymous said

    What you have to remember, though, is that “sat there and . . . .” is a southern thing — okay a country thing. It is not necessarily that sitting and crying are more related that doing a cha cha and crying, is that a “country” speaker will “sit there” and do just about anything. You don’t even have to be sitting.

    “She sat there and lied to my face!” I was told, in reference to a woman who was obvious standing behind a counter at a store.

    To be honest, I have use the term my whole life and am not exactly sure what it REALLY means. My guess is that is has something to do with not being secretive. He didn’t run away and hide to cry, he sat there. He was out in the open about it. The lying clerk was not evasive with her deceptions; she was blatantly dishonest.

    I think it is just a lovely quirk of the “country” dialect, like my favorite, the “fixing to” phrase. While you always say that you are “fixing to go to the store,” you are rarely actually making any sort of preparations to do so.

  2. Neal said

    That’s an interesting development that I hadn’t been aware of: the Southern American grammaticalization of “sit there and [verb]” to mean “[verb] openly”. Thanks!

    Meanwhile, the kind of strange coordination seen in “tears I’ve sat here and cried” can occur with verbs other than “sit here/there,” so that aspect is not strictly a Southern thing. For example, “the beer that he went to the store and bought” (cf. *”the beer that he went to the store”), or “the candy he disobeyed me and ate” (cf. *”the candy he disobeyed me”).

  3. […] If, in my literal-minded way, I were to take this as a completely parallel coordination, I would take it to mean that Nowrastek’s teleplay does two things: It dramatizes the frequent opportunities etc. etc., but it lacked the will to dramatize these opportunities. (It dramatizes these opportunities despite an earlier unwillingness to do it!) But I wouldn’t do that. I”ve parsed it as intended, so that inside the big relative clause modifying frequent opportunities, there are two verb phrases coordinated by but; one of them with a gap (indicated with the underlining) corresponding to frequent opportunities, and one with no gap. I’ve written about this kind of coordination before; it’s exemplified by tears I’ve [sat here] and [cried    ] and something I [put in    ], [sit back], and [run    ]. […]

  4. I used to never listen to country, but it’s changed a lot over the last ten years or so. And the cowgirls are hot!

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