Posted by Neal on May 29, 2006
In a recent Language Log posting, Geoff Pullum has this to say about a movie reviewer who read the book The Da Vinci Code and made some observations about Dan Brown’s strange and klunky syntax, observations already made by Geoff Pullum two years earlier:
[Anthony Lane] sounds a tiny bit like an intelligent literary stylistician who has just been awakened from a two-year coma and thus attracts a certain amount of eye-rolling at conferences as he brings up points that he thinks are new but they’re not.
I was interested in the points that he thinks are new but they’re not bit. Pullum uses a relative clause to zero in on what kind of points he’s talking about. Specifically, he’s talking about points that have two properties: 1) He (Lane) thinks they are new; and 2) they’re not new. The first property appears in the relative clause as he thinks [ ] are new, with silence instead of a subject for are new. The missing subject corresponds to points. The second property appears in the relative clause as they’re not. No missing subject here; points corresponds to the actually-spoken subject they.
So why didn’t Pullum leave out the they here, just as he did in he thinks [ ] are new? That is, why didn’t he write this?:
…points that he thinks are new but aren’t.
I could ask him, but hey, Geoff Pullum is a busy man. I’m sure he won’t mind if I just speculate a little. He’s a pretty tolerant guy, after all. Maybe he wanted the sentence to end with a stressed not for emphasis (which you don’t get if it’s swallowed up in the contraction aren’t) and it sounded better as but they’re not than but are not. Or, maybe he wanted to avoid having points fill different kinds of gaps in the two phrases. Sure, points corresponds to a subject in both he thinks [ ] are new and [ ] are not, but in the former, it’s the subject of the embedded verb after thinks that’s being left out, while in the latter it’s the subject of the main verb are. Perhaps in Pullum’s grammar, this kind of double duty sounds as strange as a noun corresponding to both a subject and an object in a relative clause, like some of the ones here.
Whatever the reason, it evidently sounded better to Geoff Pullum to keep the they in the second clause. The result is that we have another coordination in which something is marked only on the first coordinate which nonetheless has scope over both coordinates. We’ve had examples involving negation, modality, and question formation, as illustrated below:
- Negation: “It was fun to run into someone who [wasn’t stodgy] and [thought at some point you should call it quits],” remembered Ellen. (link)
- Modality: “[They must have loosened the hooks] and [Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it],” Jerry said. (link)
- Question formation: [Did you make your own contributions to a complying superannuation fund] and [your assessable income is less than $31,000]? (link)
Pullum’s is the first example crucially involving relative clause formation.