Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Escape from Relative Clause Island

Posted by Neal on October 13, 2006

I heard someone being interviewed on a radio, talking about child pornography on the Internet. At one point, he said that there were some

…disturbing images, ones that any parent who sees would say kids shouldn’t be exposed to them…

I didn’t have any trouble understanding the sentence at all, which surprised me somewhat, since sentences like this one are usually ungrammatical.

Why, you may ask? I’m glad you asked. Let’s start out with a noun phrase (NP) consisting of parents followed by a relative clause restricting us to a certain set of parents:

parents who see these disturbing images

No problem yet. Now let’s expand this NP into a full sentence by providing a verb phrase (VP) for it:

parents who see these disturbing images would say [blah blah blah]

Now let’s turn this entire sentence into another, bigger relative clause by removing these disturbing images, and then let’s have it modify the noun disturbing images:

disturbing images that any parent who sees [   ] would say [blah blah blah]

OK, that’s close enough to the original for our purposes. Now we have an extra-long NP consisting of disturbing images and a relative clause restricting us to just those disturbing images such that any parent who saw them would say whatever. The problem is that disturbing images doesn’t correspond to the subject of say or some kind of object of it; instead, it corresponds to the direct object of sees (indicated by the empty brackets), down in the buried relative clause.

So what? you say. Well, usually you can’t have a gap in an embedded relative clause. If you imagine a noun modified by a relative clause as actually moving out of the relative clause and settling down in front of it (minus any determiner, such as these), then a relative clause inside another clause is like an island, because (supposedly) this kind of movement is prevented by shark-infested waters, or if you have a boat, by the weird kind of electromagnetic stuff on Lost that makes you go around in circles and never escape. For example, compare this sentence from Chapter 11 of Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch’s online syntax textbook:

*the revolutionary who I dislike the journalist who interviewed [   ] for CNN

The little relative clause is who interviewed; the clause around it is I dislike the journalist who interviewed [   ]; and this time, turning this clause into the even bigger relative clause who I dislike the journalist who interviewed [   ] for CNN is ungrammatical.

So now that you agree that disturbing images that any parent who sees [   ] would say… shouldn’t be possible, why did it sound so normal when I heard it? My guess (based on stuff I’ve read by people such as Robert Kluender) is that it’s because the gap is in a relative clause that modifies the early-appearing subject (any parent), instead of one that modifies something that comes later, like the direct object of dislike in the ungrammatical example.

4 Responses to “Escape from Relative Clause Island”

  1. What about blind parents?

  2. I agree that it’s better. You always come up with such interesting things to think about.

  3. […] As for why islands exist, linguists still argue. For this one, my impression is that this sentence crashes because you start out parsing it as Whose camera would you have sat on, assuming that whose camera fills in a gap after on, but then comes an it, and you have to look farther and deeper for the gap that whose camera is to fill. But other times, islands do allow things to escape; for example, there’s the subtype of adjunct island called the relative clause island that I discuss in this post. […]

  4. […] That sounds really awkward, though; maybe even ungrammatical in its own right (because of so-called relative clause islands). So a better option would be with a subject gap: 101 Words to Make You Sound […]

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