Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Change We Can Believe In (But Other Things We Can’t)

Posted by Neal on June 4, 2008

Reading the paper today, I saw a picture of Barack Obama, triumphant from having effectively locked in the Democratic nomination, standing at a podium lectern with a campaign sign on it that read:

Without any background knowledge, you could parse this phrase as a noun (change) modified by a relative clause that doesn’t have a relative pronoun (we can use) — which, in fact, is the intended parse. You could also parse it as a topicalized sentence — that is, a sentence with one part of particular interest appearing at the front instead of its default location. Parallel examples would be (with default locations labeled as [GAP]:

That I’ll never do [GAP]!
(I hate broccoli, but) carrots I love [GAP].

The fronted bit could also be a prepositional phrase or an adverb or anything else that would normally appear later in the sentence:

In God we trust [GAP].
(I’m giving a page-a-day calendar to Liz, but) to James, I think I’ll give some fake vomit [GAP].
(I admit I failed to file a tax return this year, but) last year I’m certain I filed one [GAP].

So the Obama sign could conceivably be the completion of a thought like, “There are a lot of things I don’t believe in, but…” Of course, this is not an ambiguity that’s going to confuse anyone, but I was interested in identifying all the reasons that the intended Noun+Relative Clause parse is the one people undoubtedly choose. Let’s see…

  1. Topicalized sentences are marked, since they violate the usual subject-verb-object order of English, whereas nouns followed by relative clauses are common.
  2. It’s more plausible to imply that not all change is change we can believe in (by specifically talking about change that we can believe in) than it is to say that change in general is something that we can believe in. It’s always safer to believe a “sometimes” statement than a categorical “alway” statement.
  3. (Only applies to the phrase when spoken) Topicalized sentences require stress on the topicalized element, whereas noun phrases modified by relative clauses do not require special stress. If Obama were to read the sign aloud, the stress would almost certainly fall on believe, not on change.
  4. (Only applies to the written phrase) A topicalized sentence, being a sentence, should have a period at the end. A noun plus a relative clause, with nothing else, should not be followed by a period. The sign did not have a period.

A further disambiguating factor exists for book and movie titles: These titles are more often noun phrases than sentences, and a fortiori more often than topicalized sentences. Thus, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write or Strange Animals I Have Known are more likely to be noun phrases than a topicalized sentences for all the reasons listed above plus this one.

Do you have other disambiguating factors to add to the list? Alternatively, do you have real examples where both a topicalized-sentence and a noun-plus-relative-clause reading were plausible?

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4 Responses to “Change We Can Believe In (But Other Things We Can’t)”

  1. david said

    it could also be an imperative form of the verb ‘to change’.

    Now we just have to find out what he wants us to change ‘we can believe in’ to…

  2. Matt said

    Where’s the podium? I only see the lectern.

  3. Neal said

    Matt: OK, OK, I made the change.

  4. […] coordinations, because it doesn’t involve a relative clause. Instead, it’s a topicalization: Something is lifted out of a clause and put at the front of the sentence. What Doug apparently […]

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