Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Opportunities They Had But Lacked the Will to Do So

Posted by Neal on September 13, 2006

In the various columns, reports, and interviews concerning Cyrus Nowrasteh, the writer of The Path to 9/11, one quotation from Nowrasteh keeps showing up. He says:

It also dramatizes the frequent opportunities the Administration [had     in the 90s to stop Bin Laden in his tracks] but [lacked the will to do so].

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    ].

There are two differences, though. First, in the other examples, the final coordinated phrase (cried, run) always has a gap, but in this one it doesn’t (lacked the will to do so). Second, in the other examples the conjunction is and, while in this example it’s but. I have a feeling these two facts are related, but don’t know how yet.

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