Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Wh-Pronoun, Why You Wanna Go Down in the Clause Below?

Posted by Neal on July 21, 2010

When I was doing research for my Visual Thesaurus column on Im(m)a a couple of months ago, I made a point of listening to more of the Top 40 radio station in town than I had done in years. (Listening less to current music is what happens when you get an iPod.) One of the songs I heard that was on the Top 10 at the time was Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister”, and I liked it well enough that I downloaded a copy. I like the ukulele, the percussion, and the “hey, hey” vocal riffs, but as I listen to it more, I also admire the complex rhyme scheme. You have to examine not one but two verses to get the full picture, so here are the first two:

Your lipstick stains
on the front lobe of my left side brains
I knew I wouldn’t forget you
so I went and let you
blow my mind.

Your sweet moonbeam
the smell of you in every single dream I dream
I knew when we collided
you’re the one I have decided
who’s one of my kind.

That’s AABBC DDEEC. Furthermore, the AA and DD rhymes are monosyllabic (stains, brains; beam, dream), while the BB and EE ones are disyllabic ((for)get you, let you; (col)lided, (de)cided), and that pattern continues in the other verses.

However, I also noticed some strange syntax in the lyrics; specifically, the line you’re the one I have decided who’s one of my kind. What’s that who doing where it is? Shouldn’t it be

You’re the one who I’ve decided is one of my kind.

Usuallly, decide is followed by a clause, which may or may not be introduced by the complementizer that. For example, we might have

I’ve decided (that) she’s one of my kind.

Things get complicated, though, when we lift out the she and turn what remains of the clause into a relative clause. Without the she, what we have is I’ve decided (that) ___ is one of my kind. Actually, what you get is I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind, without the option of using a that anymore. In English, for the most part you can’t have complementizer that right before a gap. Putting the relative pronoun who in front of this, we get

who I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

Or, instead of a who, you could introduce the relative clause with a that or no relativizer at all:

who/that/0 I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

Now the whole thing can modify a noun, such as one:

the one who/that/0 I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

So how in the world did Pat Monahan, Amund Bjørklund and Espen Lind come up with the one I have decided who‘s one of my kind?

In fact, this reminded me of a pattern of wh-question formation that we don’t have in English, called partial wh-movement. To understand what partial wh-movement is, it’s useful to compare it to the two other kinds of wh-question formation. One is called wh-movement or wh-fronting, and is what we have in English. If we’re asking, let’s say, a where question, we put the where at the front of the sentence, no matter how deeply the clause it actually came from is buried in there, as these examples show:


  1. Where did they meet ___?
  2. Where do you think they met ___?
  3. Where should we say you think they met ___?

Another kind of wh-question formation is wh in-situ. Using this method, the where stays in its home clause, no matter how deeply it’s buried in the overall sentence. In English, this kind of question can only be used to express surprise, or to prompt a speaker to repeat some information you didn’t catch. In other languages, though, such as Chinese, this is the normal method of forming questions.

Wh in-situ

  1. They met where?
  2. You think they met where?
  3. We should say you think they met where?

In partial wh-movement, the where would move to the front of a clause, but only to the front of its home clause. No matter how deeply that clause is buried, the where moves to its beginning, then stops. However, I guess to serve as a kind of question marker, at the front of the whole sentence is a general wh-word, typically the one corresponding to what in English. It’s sometimes called an expletive wh, or a scope-marking wh. If partial wh-movement existed in English, the example sentences might look like these:

Partial wh-movement

  1. Where did they meet ___? [no difference from ordinary wh-movement in this case]
  2. *What do you think where they met ___?
  3. *What should we say what you think where they met ___?

This is getting pretty close to the one I have decided who’s one of my kind, but there’s one significant difference: We don’t have an expletive wh like what at the beginning of the relative clause. If this were partial wh-movement, and partial wh-movement were even grammatical in English, we’d expect something like

the one what I’ve decided who‘s one of my kind.

I thought I had an answer when I Googled Amund Bjørklund and Espen Lind and found out they were Norwegian. Aha! One language that is well-known for having partial wh-movement is German, and now we have two speakers of another Germanic language coming up with this strange syntax reminiscent of German’s partial wh-movement! I expected to find that Norwegian had partial wh-movement too, and furthermore didn’t even bother with a scope-marking, expletive wh in its version. The funny English syntax would be bleed-through from the songwriters’ first language.

But as it turns out, Norwegian doesn’t have partial wh-movement, so now all I can conclude is,

Wh pronoun, why you wanna go down in the clause below where you’re s’posed to go, the way you’ve moved ain’t fair you know.


11 Responses to “Wh-Pronoun, Why You Wanna Go Down in the Clause Below?”

  1. GPHemsley said

    Hah. That was song is such an earworm. I was always singing it when it first came out… But I don’t think I ever noticed the who’s; I think I may have sung it as was, instead—even though there was a tense mismatch, it was a least plausible.

    That being said, as you know, song lyrics often take liberties with grammatical structure. Usually, it has more to do keeping specific lines grammatical than the whole (written) sentence. Then again, I kinda like the way the partial wh-movement sounds, at least in this particular case.

    Incidentally, I blogged about an interesting wh-movement phenomenon back in June, and I’ve yet to receive feedback from anyone. So, I present to you this shameless plug:

    Let me know what you think? (And don’t forget to click through to the dedicated page, as it goes into much more detail and explanation.) Thanks!

  2. Barrie said

    There’s no mystery. ‘I have decided’ is parenthetical.

    • Neal said

      Hmm, an interesting possibility. What do the rest of you think?

      • GPHemsley said

        I agree that it’s an interesting possibility, but I’m not sure I like what the outcome is:
        “I knew when we collided, you’re the one who’s one of my kind.”

        That double use of “one” (albeit with slightly different meanings) kinda rubs me the wrong way.

      • Barrie said

        The sentence is ‘You’re the one, I have decided, who’s one of my kind’. That’s the same as saying ‘I have decided that you’re the one who’s one of my kind’. More succinctly, ‘I have decided you’re one of my kind’. No need for all that movement stuff. The writers were desperate for a rhyme for ‘collided’ and they ended up with a sentence that, while grammatical, doesn’t mean much, and would be unusual outside context of a popular song.

      • Estel said

        I was going to comment that it’s parenthetical too.

      • I clearly wasn’t paying much attention two years. Barrie is definitely right.

  3. […] Wh-Pronoun, Why You Wanna Go Down in the Clause Below? « Literal … […]

  4. Possibly the eccentric use of “who” is the responsibility of the two Norwegian members of the songwriting team.

  5. I’m with Barrie in thinking that “I have decided” is parenthetical. But you did an amazing job of overthinking this! 😉

  6. […] true, so true, as I concurred once before in this space. These days I get exposed to unfamiliar music only when something unusual is going […]

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