Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Books That I Want to Come Out or Get

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2010

I was ripping sheets out of a memo pad this morning, trying to find a blank one for a grocery list, when I came across one with two quotations from Doug, dated October 18, 2008. I guess I meant to write about them at some point, so why not now? Here’s the first one, with Doug talking about a lot of books in series he was reading whose next volume was to be published soon, or was already available:

There’s quite a few books that I want to come out or get.

Let’s expand that out into two sentences. First, there’s

There’s quite a few books that I want __ to come out.

Here, want is a verb that takes an NP and an infinitive as its complements: You want something to happen. The gap I’ve left in the sentence corresponds to that NP complement of want, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause that I want __ to come out, which modifies books.

Now the other sentence:

There’s quite a few books that I want to get __.

In this sentence, want just takes an infinitival complement: You want to do something. The gap here corresponds to the direct object of get, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause I want to get __, which again modifies books.

What I find interesting is that a single token of want is used in two ways, with different syntactic requirements and slightly different semantics. I wrote about this kind of thing in my dissertation, where I had another example a lot like Doug’s, taken from a newspaper article in 2001 or 2002. It was a handwritten list confiscated from a high school girl, which got her in a lot of trouble in the post-Columbine atmosphere. The list was titled:

People I want to kill or die

That is, all persons x such that she wanted to kill x, or wanted x to die. Actually, since then I’ve realized this construction could be parsed a different way. It could also be a relative clause like the one in “things you have to do or suffer the consequences”: She could theoretically meant “persons x such that I want to kill x or die as a consequence of my failure to kill x.” But in context, it was clearly a structure like Doug’s.

The other Doug quotation was:

Here comes him.

Not much to say here except to note it’s another illustration of the colloquial rule for use of nominative pronouns: Use them only as simple subjects that come before their verb (e.g. Here he comes). Use objective in all other cases: coordinated subjects (me and him have the same teacher), standalone pronouns (Him?), predicate nominatives (It was him), and in this example, subjects that come after their verb.

10 Responses to “Books That I Want to Come Out or Get”

  1. Glen said

    In the first sentence, what jumps out at me is Doug’s use of “there’s” with a plural subject (um, “a few books” is indeed the subject in this type of construction, right?). I would have said “there are” or “there’re”, but I recognize that I’m a weirdo. Doug’s way of saying it seems most common.

  2. GPHemsley said

    For me, there is a distinct difference between “books that I want to come out or get” and “people I want to kill or die”. The former is OK, if (sometimes) questionable; the latter is not OK without multiple reads and mental separation.

    And I think I know why. The semantic roles of “come out” and “get” are basically the same: the outcome of both “come out” and “get” are in know way influenced by the person wanting them (“I”); that is, “I” is not the agent of either of “come out” or “get”. However, the semantic roles of “kill” and “die” are very different: “kill” most definitely requires an agent, while “die” definitely does not. If I understand correctly, three out of the four verbs here are ergative/unaccusative (i.e. inherently passive), while one is most definitely an active verb (“kill”).

    As for “Here comes him.”, that also seems to be ungrammatical to me, despite (at face value) following the rules of grammar. I imagine that also has something to do with the semantic roles that “come” takes on?

    • Neal said

      Good point. “Kill” alone required that its subject be an agent (or at least an instrument). For that reason, I’d use the term “ergative” to refer to it (though I realize many linguists use the term to refer to verbs whose subjects are *not* agents–a mistake propagated by an ill-informed but widely read paper).

      Of the other verbs, “die” and “get” have subjects that are patients: “inherently passive” as you put it (though I’d avoid saying that, as it furthers the misunderstanding of what passive voice is). A common term for verbs like this is “unaccusative”, as you point out. These are also the verbs that are sometimes counterintuitively, perversely, and just plain wrongly (IMHO) called ergative.

      The last verb, “come out,” I would say does have an agent subject, like an ergative verb, but no patient (unlike an ergative verb). A common term for this is therefore “unergative”. But if you make the case that the subject doesn’t have to be an agent–as it doesn’t in “a new book came out”–then this would indeed be another unaccusative verb.

      So how many, like Gordon, accept one of these coordinations but not the other?

      As for “here comes him,” that’s not grammatical for me, either. But neither is “here comes he.”

      • Glen said

        I don’t agree that ‘get’ is inherently passive in this context. Doug was not talking about, say, “getting hammered” or “getting crazy”; he was talking about acquiring something (books). That is the original, active sense of the verb, and it requires an agent (someone to do the acquiring). So I find the two coordinations equally (un)grammatical.

      • The Ridger said

        I have to agree with Glen: in “I got that book”, there’s nothing “passive, unaccusative” or anything else happening. “Get” is “acquire” (or “understand” in a different meaning but the same structure). “There’s a lot of books I want to get” = “There are a lot of books X such that I want to acquire X”.

      • GPHemsley said

        In my interpretation, “get” does not require an agent. That is, I interpret “get” to be as a gift, such that the person receiving (e.g.) the book had no part in obtaining it. And I think “acquire” could be interpreted in the same way, though maybe less so.

      • GPHemsley said

        On a somewhat related note, I appear to have attached a different semantic requirement to the verb “grow” than a lot of other people, and it’s kind of annoying. Specifically, my version of “grow” does not allow the construct “the stockbroker grows his stocks” but it does allow “the gardener grows his flowers”. I don’t know if this is some sort of animacy requirement, or if has something to do with the semantic roles of the subject and object, but it’s one of those things that crops up so often that you just have to force your way through it.

        (I have a similar problem with “myriad”: For me, it is only a noun; it can never be an adjective. Ever.)

      • The Ridger said

        Ah, I see. In my lexicon, “get” has three structures: the active one of “acquire”, the passive one of “receive”, and the possessive/relational one of “have” (though this last only in the past perfect of “have got/’ve got”). As a main verb, of course; the get passive is alive and well for me, also.

        For me “I want to get that” doesn’t mean “I want someone to give me that”, though, unless some sort of present-giving occasion is the topic; it usually means “I want to acquire that”. “I got that for my birthday” is different than “I got that at a little store I found in Depoe Bay.

    • The Ridger said

      Those fronted adverbials + inverted subj/verb are difficult to deal with. As Neal says, “Here come I” or “Here comes he” is impossibly stilted and even ungrammatical, where “Here I come” or “Here he comes” are not. (“There goes me” is more common, I think, and shows the same problem.)

      I think “there’s” has lost its number marking; I hear (and use) it all the time where I wouldn’t use “there is”…

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