Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dark Knight Non-Parallelism

Posted by Neal on August 22, 2008

Doug was disappointed that I wouldn’t let him see The Dark Knight last weekend, when his friend was seeing it to celebrate his birthday. It was a good movie, but some of the scenes were a bit too realistically violent for me to be comfortable sending him to see.

No, I don’t want to hear it! Yes, I know Dad took me to see Jaws when I was six years old, and I was glad he did. I remember jumping when that severed head tumbled into sight when the divers were investigating the sunken boat. (“That head was artificial!” a classmate told me in school that fall. He was probably right.) And yes, I remember going to see Jaws 2 a couple of years later for a friend’s birthday party. I had a good time. What of it?

As for The Dark Knight, here’s the line that made the biggest impression on me, spoken to Bruce Wayne by his servant Alfred, regarding the kind of criminals the Joker was organizing:

They cannot be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.

Here’s one parallel parsing won’t work:

  1. They cannot be bought.
  2. They cannot be bullied.
  3. *They cannot be reasoned.
  4. They cannot be negotiated with.

The reasoned needs to connect with the with, and it can’t under this parsing. We could try another parallel parsing, so that the with goes with all four verbs. That is:

  1. *They cannot be bought with.
  2. *They cannot be bullied with.
  3. They cannot be reasoned with.
  4. They cannot be negotiated with.

Reasoned and negotiated are OK this way, but now bought and bullied crash. The intended reading is the nonparallel one, where with goes with just reasoned and negotiated:

  1. They cannot be bought.
  2. They cannot be bullied.
  3. They cannot be reasoned with.
  4. They cannot be negotiated with.

To get this reading from a syntactically parallel coordination, there are a couple of options. One would be to say the with twice:

They cannot be bought, bullied, reasoned with, or negotiated with.

Another would be to say the with just once, and bundle together the two verbs it belongs to into their own sub-coordination:

They cannot be bought, bullied, or reasoned or negotiated with.

In essence, we’ve changed this from a coordination of four things (bought, bullied, reasoned with, negotiated with) into a coordination of three things, the third of them being a set of two things: bought, bullied, (reasoned-or-negotiated)-with.

But how do we get the intended meaning out of Alfred’s actual utterance? It has the feel of a multiple-level coordination, but this “Dark Knight coordination” and multiple-level coordinations are somewhat different on close inspection. Examples of multiple-level coordinations such as be pompous, obese, and eat cactus coordinate a verb phrase on either end (i.e. be pompous, eat cactus), and in the middle there’s a partial VP (the predicate adjective obese) whose missing part is the same verb that heads the first VP (be). Or more generally, they coordinate some kind of phrase (call it an XP) on either end, and in the middle have a partial XP that’s missing something that occurs in the first XP. In the Dark Knight coordination, we have participial phrases on either end (bought and bullied on the one end; negotiated with on the other), and in the middle we have a partial participial phrase (reasoned). So far the similarity holds. There are two differences. First, reasoned is missing material that shows up later in the coordination, not earlier. Second, this missing material (the with) is to the right of the partial phrase, not to the left of it.

Despite these differences, I was pleased to find an off-the-shelf analysis that generates this kind of coordination using the same general template that generates several other kinds of coordinations. What is it? you ask. That’ll have to go in the next post or two, since this one’s getting kind of long. Don’t worry, I’ll get to work on it right now, while I’m still thinking about the analysis, so you’ll lose as little sleep as possible. But if you can’t wait, you can get it straight from the original source, the Beavers & Sag 2004 paper I mentioned in the last post on multiple-level coordinations.

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3 Responses to “Dark Knight Non-Parallelism”

  1. The Ridger said

    They cannot be bought, bullied, or reasoned or negotiated with… The first “or” has been dropped, because otherwise the sentence sounds stupid.

    I know that’s not a technical analysis, but it’s my gut feeling.

    I didn’t see the movie so I don’t know how Alfred said it, but I’ll bet there was a shorter pause between “reasoned or” than between “bought, bullied” and “bullied, reasoned”.

  2. […] 23, 2008 So before I show how Beavers & Sag’s analysis of coordination works for the Dark Knight coordination, it’s worth showing how it handles ordinary coordination. They start off with an assumption […]

  3. Rui Chaves said

    this ellipsis is very interesting (but I’m biased, since I’ve written a phd thesis about this kind of stuff). However, in this particular case, I have some doubts. The verb “reasoned” sometimes occurs without a preposition. If so, the datum is analyzable as non-elliptical…

    “It’s virtually impossible to fight those driven by fear; they can’t be reasoned because the fear blinds them.”

    “I can’t be reasoned when it comes to racism, sexism or torture.”


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