Variations on Multiple-Level Coordination
Posted by Neal on November 23, 2009
In the multiple-level coordinations I’ve written about before, the coordinated items (which I’ll call conjuncts) have been two smaller phrases and a bigger one. For example, in
the first conjunct is an adjective (sick), the second is an adjective (twisted), and the third is a verb phrase (smells like old socks).
Actually, I’m more inclined to look at this kind of coordination as having a small conjunct between two larger ones. In this example, the first larger conjunct would be not just the adjective sick, but the entire verb phrase [i]s sick. The smaller conjunct is always missing something that appears in an immediately adjacent one; in the sick/twisted example, the small conjunct twisted could be expanded into a verb phrase like the other two by adding the is from the preceding conjunct, like this:
It’s sick, is twisted, and smells like old socks.
Later on I found a slightly different kind of multiple-level coordination, like the one above except that the smaller conjunct’s missing material comes from the conjunct right after it instead of the one right before it. That was the Dark Knight coordination
They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.
The “bigger” conjuncts here aren’t actually bigger than the smaller one, but they are closer to being full verb phrases. They are three passive participial verb phrases — that is, strings of words that, in combination with the be, make a good passive verb phrase: bought, bullied, and negotiated with. The “smaller” conjunct is reasoned, which isn’t quite a participial verb phrase: It’s missing a with. The with, of course, is understood from the last conjunct, negotiated with. One way of phrasing it in a syntactically parallel way would be:
They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned with, or negotiated with.
Now I’ve come across a couple of other variations on MLCs. In all the previous examples, whether the smaller conjunct takes its understood material from the conjunct right before it or right after it, it’s still sandwiched between bigger conjuncts. Not with this one:
I had to promise to do all his chores for a month, give him my braided leather whip and fifteen cents in cash.
(Papa Married a Mormon, John D. Fitzgerald, 1955, p. 196)
In this example, the smaller conjunct comes at the end. The conjuncts are:
- a verb phrase: promise to do all his chores for a month
- another verb phrase: give him my braided leather whip
- a noun phrase: fifteen cents in cash
As with the other examples, though, the missing material in the smaller conjunct is supplied from a neighboring conjunct: give him.
If they can’t find you these days, you’re either a genius, a hermit or they aren’t looking very hard.
(Leonard Pitts, Jr. column, Sept. 8, 2009)
If it were just You’re a genius, a hermit, or they aren’t looking very hard, it would be just an MLC like many of the other discussed here: The or seems to be joining a clause (You’re … a genius), a noun phrase (a hermit), and then another entire clause (they aren’t looking very hard).
But this sentence has an extra complication: Instead of a coordinating conjunction like and or or linking the (unlike) phrases, it’s a pair of correlative conjunctions: either … or. Without going into messy details, I’ll just say that the first of a pair of correlative conjunctions is often able to appear in places other than right next to its conjunct. You can say, Either you got it or you didn’t, with either and or each right before a clause; or, you can say You either got it or you didn’t and have the same meaning, but with the either pushed inside its clause. So in Pitts’s example, instead of Either you’re a genius, a hermit, or they’re not looking very hard, we get the either pushed into that first conjunct: You’re either a genius…..
I guess there’s nothing really new going on here. Nonparallel structures with correlative conjunctions have been around for years, and so have multiple-level coordinations. This is just the first time I’ve seen them in the same structure.