Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Abstract Art FLoPs

Posted by Neal on June 16, 2005

The latest additions to the list of “Friends in Low Places” coordinations come from Mark Liberman at Language Log, who found these in article by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times on June 7, 2005. It was a review of artist Richard Serra’s installations, and the first FLoP coordination appeared in this sentence:

It rejuvenates and pushes abstraction to a fresh level.

There are a couple of ways to parse this as a strictly parallel structure. One is to take it as a coordination of two VPs: rejuvenates (in its intransitive sense of rejuvenating people in general) and pushes abstraction to a new level. Paraphrased, it would be, “It rejuvenates one, and pushes abstraction to a new level.” However, the context makes it clear that abstraction is intended to be a direct object of rejuvenates, so we have to try again.

Another parallel structure would be a coordination of two transitive verbs: rejuvenates and pushes. This parsing could be paraphrased as,”It rejuvenates abstraction to a new level, and it pushes abstraction to a new level.” But can you rejuvenate something to a new level? That’s just not idiomatic English, and probably is not the reading Kimmelman intended.

So the conclusion is that the coordination isn’t strictly parallel, and is actually intended to be interpreted the way Liberman interprets it: “It rejuvenates abstraction, and pushes abstraction to a new level.” It’s as if Kimmelman wanted to write, “It [rejuvenates] and [pushes to a new level], abstraction,” but then flopped abstraction into the second coordinate to alleviate the klunkiness of having this rather short direct object come after a prepositional phrase.

The other FLoP coordination came in this sentence:

Mothers now cheerfully push strollers and kids dash through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds.

Again, there are two options if we take this sentence as a strictly parallel structure. One way is that two complete sentences are being coordinated. Mothers now push strollers–on sidewalks, in malls, wherever. And meanwhile, at the Serra installation, kids dash through sculptures as if they were playgrounds. But mothers have been pushing strollers for many years, so why mention it now? And even if they only recently acquired their stroller-pushing abilities, what does that have to do with the sculptures? Try again.

The other way is to take the sentence as a coordination of two partial clauses: Mothers push strollers and kids dash. Each is missing a prepositional phrase to complete the meaning of push or dash, and through his sculptures serves both. Unfortunately, so will as if they were playgrounds, stranded as it is outside the coordination. One of Liberman’s readers finds such a parse reasonable. Liberman comments:

John Cowan thinks it’s fine to interpret the second quoted sentence to mean “[Mothers now cheerfully push strollers through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds] and [kids dash through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds]”. He could be right, but my experience of strollers and playgrounds is that you push the stroller to the playground, then stop and let the kid get out to play. I guess you could design a playground for stroller-slaloming, though, and perhaps that was what Kimmelman had in mind.

If you agree with Liberman’s interpretation, then once again we’re left having to conclude that the coordination is not parallel, and is to be interpreted as, “Mothers now cheerfully push strollers through his sculptures, and kids dash through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds.” To phrase this as a strictly parallel coordination without repeating through his sculptures would be even klunkier than the rejuvenates and pushes to a new level example. In fact, I don’t think it can be done, even with careful intonation:

*Mothers now cheerfully push strollers, and kids dash as if they were playgrounds, through his sculptures.

The FLoP count now stands at 8 (it would be 10, except for the disputed status of the second one here and the namesake example).

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