Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Human Rights FLoP

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2008

Our old friend, the Friends in Low Places coordination, has popped up again. Arnold Zwicky discusses an example that he found in a headline on cnn.com:

Brinkley spouse slept with, gave teen $300K

Since we’re on the subject, I’ll add the most recent FLoP coordination I’ve found:

As became increasingly obvious in the months after the [Abu Ghraib] photos came to public light, this pattern of abuse did not result from the acts of individual soldiers who broke the rules. It resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to bend, ignore, or cast rules aside.

I read this in the same book I mentioned in my last post (Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect); the original source is the introduction to the Human Rights Watch report “The Road to Abu Ghraib”.

Turning to the cnn.com headline, unless you parse it to mean that Brinkley’s spouse slept with $300K, or can find some some way that slept with teen $300K is grammatical, you’ll have to agree that this coordination is not parallel in structure. And for the HRW sentence, unless you find bend rules aside and ignore rules aside to be idiomatic English, you have to accept bend, ignore, or cast rules aside as a non-parallel coordination.

Not that that’s a bad thing. As has been pointed out here before (in posts that I don’t feel like tracking down), at least one kind of non-parallel coordination is accepted as completely standard English. For example,

Kim slept on the couch, and Sandy on the futon.

To the left of the and, we have an entire clause: Kim slept on the couch. To the right, we have a clause minus its verb: Sandy on the futon. I’ve never heard a complaint about gapping (syntacticians’ term for this kind of coordination), though it’s clearly a non-parallel kind of structure. My impression is that gapping is not only accepted by the strictest grammarians, but even smiled upon as examples of concise language by virtue of its omitting a needless word in the second coordinate (in this case, slept).

Then there are examples which coordinate verb phrases that all have the same subject, but for one reason or another disrupt the ordinary subject-verb order and end up with the subject of both VPs completely enclosed in just the first VP, like these:

Up he sat and began to chatter excitedly.
But that was nonsense, he told himself quickly, and turned from the fire. (Sid Fleischman, By the Great Horn Spoon!, 1963, p. 171)

In the first of these examples, the verb phrase sat up is reversed and wrapped around the subject he; in the second, the verb phrase told himself ‘But that was nonsense’ wraps itself around the subject by moving But that was nonsense to the front of the sentence. It’s true that I’ve come across the occasional complaint about these sentences, but they strike me as personal reactions by people who, having learned about parallel structure, eagerly embraced the concept without learning its limits and exceptions.

Coming back to FLoP coordinations (or as I now like to call them, right-node wrappings), these are less standard than gapping and those VP-coordinations where the subject is enveloped in the first VP, and some people (like me) intuitively find them odd. But for some speakers, they’re not only accepted; they’re completely unexceptionable. Consider the comment on Zwicky’s post made by Kris Rhodes:

Is it accepted by most linguists that usages like [Zwicky's example] are in some way non-normative? Because when I am confronted by examples like [this one] I usually have to puzzle out a little bit what is even supposed to be wrong with them. They read fine to me at a first glance. Is there anyone who takes examples like this not to be examples of non-normative speech (or anyway writing) but rather as unexplored examples of a previously unexamined normative kind of language production?…
I take it that there are syntactic rules that linguists think hold over English which make the meaning of [Zwicky's example] strictly out to be that the $300 million was both slept with and given to the teen. But why not take examples like this to indicate that it turns out these syntactic rules are not valid for English after all? Why not read [Zwicky's example] as syntactically ambiguous?

In response to Kris’s first paragraph: Let us suppose that Kris and all other English speakers find FLoP coordinations to be completely grammatical. They would still be theoretically interesting precisely because of this fact, because (jumping ahead to the second quoted paragraph) yes, linguists have formulated syntactic rules to the effect that coordinated elements have to be the same kind of syntactic objects. Coordinations like these falsify those rules, indicating (as Kris suggests) that the rules are not valid, or at least need to be revised. And indeed, they have been revised, repeatedly, and are still being revised to take into account various kinds of non-parallel but nonetheless grammatical coordinations.

On the other hand, let us suppose that only some speakers find FLoP coordinations grammatical (including Kris, and many of the people who utter or write these coordinations), while others find them ungrammatical. Now, not only are they interesting because they’re grammatical in at least some speakers’ versions of English, but they’re also interesting as an example of variation in English syntax rules.

Enough about the grammar, though. After I found the FLoP coordination in the Human Rights Watch website, I clicked on their “Take Action” tab, clicked again on the “Restore Habeas Corpus: Close Guantanamo” link, and found a convenient, pre-written letter that I could personalize if I wanted to, and which would automatically be emailed to my own senator and representative with one more click. With that much convenience, I found I had no excuse not to add a sentence or two to the message and send it off. If you’re still in a patriotic mood as we reach the end of this holiday weekend, here’s the page. And if that’s not enough for you, you can also visit a similar streamlined, convenient, email-sending page here at ImpeachBush.org.

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3 Responses to “Human Rights FLoP”

  1. Ran said

    Incidentally, is this:

    > As became increasingly obvious from in the months after the [Abu Ghraib] photos came to public light, […]

    grammatical? English does allow from to take a prepositional phrase as its complement (“He called to me from” + “inside the house”, “atop the roof”, “across the street”, etc.), and the meaning here is pretty clear, but for some reason this example sounds very wrong to me.

  2. Neal said

    Ran: The from was accidentally introduced by me, and has been deleted. From in is ungrammatical for me and AFAIK for all speakers. Also, I realize that only the second sentence is from the source I cited. The sentences as I quoted them are from Zimbardo’s book, and he attributes the passage to a differently titled HRW report called “The United States: Getting Away with Torture?”

  3. [...] there are the RNWs that I only found in the first place after submitting the final draft, like the one about Victoria Beckham’s dress, or the one about Abu Ghraib. In addition to those, there’s also this handful of attestations [...]

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