Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Faulty Parallelism, Concise Non-Parallelism

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2005

Eric Bakovic at Language Log has been intrigued by coordinations that for one reason or another, sound a bit off. In these posts he lists a few and figure out what bothers him about them. Mark Liberman talks about this kind of thought process, saying:

We need a new term. Prescriptive grammar says “thou shalt not say (things that meet conditions) XYZ”. Descriptive grammar says “love the vernacular, and say what you like”. But what do we call it when you’re taken grammatically aback by something you hear or read, and then try to figure out what the problem was?

The process he describes is one that I use quite a bit. “Hmm, a place to eat doesn’t (usually) mean a place that you’re actually going to consume. I wonder why that is? Are there patterns here waiting to be discovered?” So I’m glad someone’s putting a name on it. The name Liberman proposes is WTF grammar, although he doesn’t make clear what this kind of linguistic musing has to do with the World Trade Federation.

Some of the “WTF coordinations” that Bakovic discusses are examples that I sent him after his first post, which appear in a paper I wrote. But he also gets into a kind of coordination that I didn’t cover, with this bad boy here:

I nodded so hard I’m surprised [my neck didn’t snap] and [my head fall to the floor]. (Yann Martel, Life of Pi, p. 37)

His point is that even though the negation didn’t appears in only one of the coordinates, it really has scope over both. That is, an accurate paraphrase is not

…I’m surprised that my neck didn’t snap and I’m surprised that my head fell to the floor.

but rather

…I’m surprised that it’s not the case that [my neck snapped and my head fell to the floor].

This same thing happens in a sentence my friend Greg wrote about his grandmother. Before I get to it, though, consider the sentence

I hope she didn’t die.

This can be paraphrased as

I hope that it’s not the case that she died.

Now what Greg actually wrote was:

I hope she didn’t die and nobody told me.

Here it’s even more clear that the didn’t takes scope over both coordinates. An accurate paraphrase is not

I hope that it’s not the case that she died, and I hope that nobody told me.

Told him what? It doesn’t make sense. As with Bakovic’s example, the didn’t takes scope over both coordinated clauses, even though it belongs syntactically to only the first one. A more accurate paraphrase is

I hope that it’s not the case that [she died and nobody told me].

Negation’s not the only thing that can do this. This example on p. 1332 of CGEL does it with an interrogative marker (namely the inversion of did and you):

[Did you make your own contributions to a complying superannuation fund] and [your assessable income is less than $31,000]?

At first, these coordinations seem a bit wrong, but after closer analysis, you realize that there’s really not a better way to express them. “I hope that it’s not the case that my grandmother died and nobody told me”? “Is it the case that you made your own contributions … and your assessable income is less than $31K?”? Come on!

3 Responses to “Faulty Parallelism, Concise Non-Parallelism”

  1. Estel said

    How about “I hope she didn’t die without anyone telling me”? No suggestions for the other one, though.

  2. Anonymous said

    How about, “Did you make your own contributions to a complying superannuation fund, and is your assessable income less than $31,000?”

  3. Neal said

    Anonymous: Almost. If you put in an if so before the second question, I’d say your formulation was equivalent to the quoted one.

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