Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

We Do What We Do

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2010

And now for a semantics-focused post on National Grammar Day. Actually, my syntax-focused post was drifting into semantics territory, when I talked about the likely and unlikely intended meanings for the sentence I was talking about. That’s OK: Although this post is mostly about an ambiguity in a sign, I’m going to use some syntactic diagrams. It’s hard to separate the two at times.

So, the sign I have in mind is one I saw for a mortgage broker. It had these encouraging words:

We do what we do to help people realize their dreams of home ownership.

The first time I read it, my reaction was, “Well, no kidding!” The sign seemed to be saying to me, “You know those things we do to help people realize their dreams of home ownership? Well, we do them.” Then the re-parse came through, and I arrived at the intended meaning: “You know those things we do? Well, we do them to help people realize their dreams of home ownership.”

The sentence was in perfectly good Standard English grammar, but there were two possible ways to structure it (i.e. two parses). The way that I happened upon first was the one diagrammed below. The tents above the words show how they clump together into phrases. Down at the bottom, the purpose infinitival phrase to help people… modifies the verb phrase (VP) do 1. (The 1 is a stand-in for the what that appears at the front of the fused relative clause.) The diagram shows this modifying relationship by having the to help people tent and the do 1 tent coming together under a bigger VP tent for do to help people. Then whole phrase what we do to help people… is the direct object of the do in the VP higher up in the diagram.

The purpose infinitival attaches to the smaller VP

The more sensible parse is this next one. Here, the infinitival phrase modifies not the little VP do 1, but the big VP do what we do. The diagram shows this by having the tent for the do what we do VP and the tent for to help people coming together under a tent for a big VP that houses them both: do what we do to help people.

The infinitival phrase attaches up high.

Enjoy the rest of National Grammar Day, and come back soon! If you have questions about grammar, send them to me at, or address them to @LiteralMinded on Twitter. Some of them may find their way into future posts.

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