Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Almost Right-Node Raisings

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2010

The following sentences are examples of what linguists refer to as Right-Node Raising (RNR):

I don’t care for, but Doug can’t get enough of, bird-watching.
She told me, and I told Boris, that there would be layoffs.
They suspect, but don’t know for sure, that I’ve been eating their Girl Scout cookies.

An RNR structure is a coordination of strings of words that don’t form a nice neat phrase, because something is missing from the right edge of each of them. In the first example, I don’t care for and Doug can’t get enough of are neither verb phrases nor complete sentences, because each is lacking an object of a preposition. The final element in the sentence, bird-watching, fills the hole in each of those partial sentences.

You may recall that I chose the name “right-node wrapping” for what I’d been calling “Friends in Low Places” coordinations because of their similarity to RNR.

I have a couple of new RNWs to add to the list. First is one I heard on All Things Considered yesterday:

“Have we forgotten? Have we forgotten what happened to America on 9/11?” asked Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. “Have we forgotten who did it? Have we forgotten those who protected and gave them a safe haven?”

Even though them logically belongs to both protected and gave, it’s wrapped inside the gave ~ a safe haven verb phrase.

Next is one sent to me by my brother Glen:

A&E kicks off the original real-life series “Runaway Squad,” following former NYPD detective Joe Mazzilli and his team of private investigators, who track, rescue and reunite runaways with their families. (link)

Here, runaways is the direct object of track, rescue and reunite. The trouble is that reunite has to have a with phrase right after its direct object, so runaways gets wrapped and trapped inside it.

Lastly, here’s another coordination that could almost be an RNR. Ben Zimmer found this one and sent it on to me. But speaking of Ben Zimmer, let me interrupt this post to offer him my warmest congratulations on being selected as the new “On Language” columnist for The New York Times Magazine! He’s done so much good work there as a frequent guest columnist that they couldn’t have made a better choice.

So as I was saying, this next example is from Ben. It’s a quote from Sarah Palin:

I don’t think terrorists are worthy of rights that people like my son fight and are willing to die for.

Ha, ha! Her son fights rights! That’s how you want to read it. But wait a minute: Why can’t this one be an actual RNR? Couldn’t it be a coordination of fight and are willing to die, with for understood to go with both strings of words?

No! The final element in a RNR has to be stressed. In order for this to be a RNR, Palin would have had to put intonational breaks before and after and are willing to fight, and put stress on for, like this:

*…people like my son fight — and are willing to die — for.

Doesn’t that just sound ridiculous? At least to me it does. I’m not sure why I can’t stress that final for, but I can’t. I can do it in phrases like Who is it for?, but when the for is all by itself, with silence before and after, I just can’t.


One Response to “Almost Right-Node Raisings”

  1. The Ridger said

    Stressing “for” does sound ridiculous, but the sentence doesn’t. I’d probably write it with commas, but I don’t have much trouble reading it without them.

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