Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Things You Can Put In, Sit Back, and Run

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2006

Returning, at last, to the three quotations in my last post, repeated below:

(Julie Andrews quotation)
Of course, I saw it a couple of times at various previews and things like that, but it’s not something that I actually put in, sit back and run.

(DGM quotation)
It’s just a bunch of embarrassingly juvenile scratchings about life as a hormonal 15-year old girl, meant only for me to look back on and cringe….

(George MacDonald Fraser quotation)
…perhaps terror lends wings to my wits, for when I think of the monsters I’ve conversed with and come away with a whole skin, more or less….

So what is it that these have in common? First of all, they all contain coordinated verb phrases. The Andrews example coordinates the VPs put in, sit back, and run. The DGM example coordinates the VPs look back on and cringe. The Fraser example coordinates the VPs conversed with and come away with a whole skin, more or less.

Second (as noticed by commenter ACW), one VP in each set of coordinated VPs isn’t missing a direct object or object of a preposition. In the Andrews example, the understood direct object of put in and run is something, but sit back is fine as it is, with no understood object. In the DGM example, the understood direct object of look back on is a bunch of embarrassingly juvenile scratchings about life as a hormonal 15-year old girl, but cringe doesn’t take a direct object. And in the Fraser example, the direct object of convsersed with is monsters, but come away with a whole skin doesn’t take a direct object.

Typically, if one out of a group of coordinated phrases is missing an object, that same object has to be missing from all of them (an observation made in an influential dissertation by J. R. Ross in 1967). For example, in the test that I didn’t study for but passed anyway, the understood object of both didn’t study for and passed anyway is test. And if you decide you’re only going to take an object out of one of the coordinated VPs, you could easily end up with questionable-at-best phrases like *the test that I didn’t study for and went out partying with my friends. Here, test is still the understood direct object of didn’t study for, but not for went out partying with my friends instead needs no direct object. So why do the Andrews, DGM, and Fraser quotations work?

A lot has been written about coordinations like these, but Andy Kehler I think synthesizes and sums it up best in chapter 5 of this book. The short answer is that it’s all about topics. If the coordinated phrases all concern the same topic, then that topic is eligible to be lifted out of any of those phrases it could appear in. This is most easily done when the topic serves as an object (or for that matter, the subject) in all the coordinated phrases, as in test I didn’t study for but passed anyway or the guy who didn’t study for the test but passed it anyway, but you can be staying on topic even if that topic doesn’t fill some role in each of the coordinated phrases. The key, as Kehler explains, is that the phrases have to be participants in some kind of “coherence relation.” The coherence relation in effect when the same object (or subject) is missing from each phrase is called Parallel, but there are others.

In the Andrews example, the relation is one Kehler calls Occasion. The topic is a video of The Sound of Music, and all the VPs describe a hypothetical situation of watching the video. Two of them involve actually doing something to it (putting it in, running it), and one just describes some action related to the other two–namely, sitting back, the action that chronologically connects the other two. So howcome this doesn’t work with the test I didn’t study for and went out partying with my friends? Because we never come back to the idea of the test, and as a result, the topic is not the test, but rather some more general concept, like “what I did last night.” But if turn the partying into just one more step in the story of taking the test, the coordination works:

*the test I didn’t study for and went out partying with my friends

the test I didn’t study for, went out partying with my friends, and passed anyway

And just as we can improve the test coordination, we can make the Andrews quotation ungrammatical, by taking away the last VP:

something I put in, sit back, and run.

*something I put in and sit back.

And we can make this next one ungrammatical, too, by putting the VP without a gap at the end instead of the front, and then make it grammatical again by adding one more phrase to maintain the topic:

no telling how many tears I’ve sat here and cried

*no telling how many tears I’ve cried and sat here

no telling how many tears I’ve cried, sat here, and then collected off the bartop with an eyedropper for chemical analysis

The DGM and Fraser quotations exemplify two other coherence relations, which I’ll get to in the next posting in this series.

2 Responses to “Things You Can Put In, Sit Back, and Run”

  1. Russell said

    AFAIK, this sort of “coherence” has also been noted by George Lakoff and John Goldsmith in a couple of CLS papers in the mid-80s. I haven’t read either paper, but from the title of the former’s paper (“frame semantic control of the coordinate structure constarint”), I can guess at what he attributed the (non)acceptability of these sentences to.

  2. Neal said

    Russell: Right, those are the main papers I’m thinking of. There are some other papers written later, too; I cited Kehler 2002 because he covers the material in those earlier papers in the lit review, and then provides the neat analysis.

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