Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What and How, More and Faster

Posted by Neal on August 6, 2007

Two posts back, I talked about how coordinations like when and what could force verbs that are transitive or intransitive to be both at once, and that coordinations such as more and more often could do the same thing. There’s a similar pair of syntactic structures that will force a double parsing on certain kinds of nouns. The first one is another coordination of wh-words, but this time, instead of a wh-noun and a wh-adverb, it’s a wh-determiner and a wh-adverb.

First, some background. In English, plain old nouns can’t usually function as subjects or objects in a sentence: *Cat came to the door or *I saw dentist today are ungrammatical. You have to put the noun with a determiner, such as a, the, every or your, to form a noun phrase: My cat came to the door; I saw a dentist. Some nouns, however, can act as plain nouns, combining with a determiner to form a noun phrase; or they can go without a determiner and act as noun phrases all by themselves. These are teh mass singular nouns and the plural nouns: (The) slime covered the floor; (some) squirrels keep robbing the bird feeder. With that out of the way, here’s the example I used in a January 2005 post:

Every company has its own idea of what and how information should appear….

What is the wh-determiner; put together with the noun information, it would make the noun phrase what information. But since information is a mass noun, it can also serve as an entire noun phrase without a determiner, which is exactly what it does in the phrase ideas of how information should appear. When what and when are coordinated, then (in an indirect question that doesn’t have subject-auxiliary inversion, with a mass or plural noun functioning as the subject), the noun that follows can be both a plain old noun and a full noun phrase. Here’s another example that I found more recently:

…Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, the only space-based instrument that can measure where and how much rain forms deep inside a hurricane.
Laura Allen, “Endangered Robots,” Popular Science, August 2007, p. 65

In this one, the order of wh-adverb and wh-determiner are reversed, and the determiner isn’t just a simple what; it’s the more complex how much.

It turns out that for noun-vs.-noun-phrase ambiguity, just as for transitive-vs.-intransitive ambiguity, both wh-coordinations and the kind of more and… coordinations discussed earlier can flush it out into the open. It happens when the first more is a determiner (instead of a noun phrase like in the other post), and the other word is an adjective (instead of an adverb like in the other post). An example I used in a later comment sa more and faster, with more as a noun phrase and faster as an adverb. But here’s an example with more as a determiner and faster as an adjective:

We need more and faster processors.

Processors is an ordinary noun when it combines with more, but it’s a full noun phrase when it combines with the adjective faster (under the standard analysis in which adjectives form phrases of the same category as the thing they modify).

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