Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Topicalization with Subject and Object Gap

Posted by Neal on January 6, 2009

Here’s something Doug said back in July. I put it in my drafts here, intending to write about it someday:

One of them I saw but got away. (Doug Whitman, July 9, 2008 )

Now I can’t even remember what it was he was talking about. Let’s see … we were standing at the top of the driveway, at the bush to the left of the garage door. Was he talking about some kind of bug? Or maybe something in a videogame?

Oh, well, so I can’t remember the content of what my son was telling me about. At least I can remember the important thing: He coordinated a subject-gapped clause with an object-gapped one! If you’re a regular reader here, you may remember a few posts where I talk about stuff like:

The trick was to give away information that [ ___ would tantalize hard-core fans], but [casual viewers wouldn’t need ___ ].

This example, like the examples in the earlier posts, contains a relative clause headed by a single relativizer, in this case that (though the zero relativizer occurs as well). The relative clause itself consists of a pair of coordinated clauses. One of them has a missing subject for the relativizer to correspond to; in this example, it’s [ ___ would tantalize hard-core fans]. The other has a missing object for the same relativizer to correspond to; in this example, it’s [casual viewers wouldn’t need ___]. Such coordinations aren’t always grammatical. You can’t just make one with any two subject-gap and object-gap clauses. Try this one on for size:

?This is the guy that [ ___ stole the cookies] and [Kim punished ___ ].

I suspect (without having done the research) that such coordinations are even harder to get away with in languages that have clear and distinct subjective and objective case markings on their relative pronouns. As for English, I’ve collected a few more since the last time I wrote about them:

  1. … the absolute best way to pitch his show — something [very few publicity-seekers do ___ ] but [ ___ dramatically increases
    your chances of getting booked]. (email from a publicity specialist)
  2. He’s the doctor [you always hope to see ___ ] but [ ___ only exists in the movies]. (Peggy Olsen, in the Oct. 19, 2008 episode of Mad Men)
  3. …stuff that [ __ gives you protection] but [you don’t really mind losing __ ]. (Doug to Adam, fall 2008, on player-vs-player worlds on Runescape)
  4. things that [ ___ might be quirky], but [you can deal with ___ , live with ___ , or get rid of ___ ] (Meredith VIeira, talking about house buying on Today, Nov. 21, 2008 )
  5. … books that [ ___ sounded good] but [I couldn’t get ___ off Net Library] (my mom, Nov. 22, 2008 )
  6. books [I looked up ___ ] and [ ___ were not available on Net Library] (my mom again, Nov. 22, 2008 )

But Doug’s utterance from the summer is unique among all my subject-gap/object-gap 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 wanted to do was coordinate two clauses:

  1. I saw one of them.
  2. It got away.

But he also topicalized one of them, which was the subject of the first clause, and the object of the second. How about that?

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3 Responses to “Topicalization with Subject and Object Gap”

  1. The Ridger said

    They may not be grammatical, but they are all perfectly clear. I’m sure you’re right: lack of case marking on “that/which” contributes. You could easily say “books that I looked up and that were not available” and then the deletion rule seems to say that you can delete the ‘identical’ “that” (and then of course omit it entirely).

    Wow. That’s something I never really thought about before but which is perfectly understandable when you hear it – until you think about it. (And I tried to leave out that “which” but just couldn’t.)

  2. […] Topicalization is the name for putting at the front of a sentence some phrase that would ordinarily appear later. So instead of the more ordinary I just won’t put these away, we get These, I just won’t put away. […]

  3. […] [speech; topicalization rather than relative clause] One of them I saw but got away. [DO + SU] (Doug Whitman 7/9/08, as reported by his father Neal on his blog) […]

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