Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Who Told Me Was My Dad

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2011

Driving home from Doug and Adam’s piano lessons last night, I heard a fluffy piece on NPR about Elizabeth Hughes, an eight-year-old girl who was singing the national anthem at a hockey game (well, before the game, actually), when her mike cut out, and the entire crowd picked up from where her sound went out. Well, there were probably some people in there who were just mouthing it, but enough sang to bring the song to a rousing finish. Mee-chele Norris was interviewing Hughes, and asked her how she happened to be picked to sing at the event. Hughes answered:

Who told me about this was my Dad.

Wow! A fused relative with who! A fused relative construction is something that looks like an interrogative (in this case, who told me), but acts like a noun phrase (in this case, by serving as the subject of was my dad). Huddleston and Pullum call this kind of structure a fused relative in CGEL because, to use this example to illustrate, you can think of it as equivalent to a noun modified by a relative clause: the person who told me about this. But in what the girl actually said, the who standing in for the whole string the person who. We get fused relatives all the time with what; for example, That’s what I want, which you could defuse (as it were) into That’s the thing that I want. (This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudocleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.) Shoot, I even used a fused relative headed by what myself a couple of sentences ago. Did you see it?

Anyway, back to fused relatives with who. I’ll yield the floor to Geoff Pullum, who wrote about them on Language Log in December 2005 after hearing a barista ask, “Can I help who’s next?”:

In Rockport, Massachusetts, I observed another grammatical construction that might well have been thought extinct for many decades, but like the ivory-billed woodpecker and the supplementary relative that-clause, it seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment. I was waiting in line in a small coffee shop and I heard a young woman behind the counter call for the next customer by saying “Can I help who’s next?”. This wasn’t my first observation; I hear the phrase in Santa Cruz, California, too (and since first posting this I have heard that it is familiar elsewhere, from ice cream scoopers in Cleveland, Ohio, to bank tellers in Gainesville, Florida). So it’s not local; it’s spread across the entire breadth of the continent. What’s interesting about it is that it’s a fused relative construction with human denotation, headed by the relative pronoun lexeme who. And that is a possibility that has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years.

In general, fused relatives with who just aren’t used in contemporary English. In Shakespeare’s time it was commonplace (recall Iago’s remark in Othello: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands). It survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.

Except in this peculiar use in coffee shops and the like, because in Can I help who’s next? we have a fused relative construction: it’s the object of help.

Like Pullum, I had noted the atypicality of Can I help who’s next?, and figured it was just an exceptional piece of syntax that wasn’t part of some bigger pattern. But now, from an eight-year-old girl, we have another fused relative headed by who, in a completely different context, used as a subject instead of a verb, and not part of some set, formulaic expression. Could this kind of fused relative be making a comeback, or was the phrasing unintentional? You can hear Elizabeth Hughes and decide for yourself. The story is also featured on the NPR blog, and if you listen to the first audio clip there, you’ll hear the phrase at about 1:19.

I was still thinking about this fused relative as we pulled into the garage, and Norris was asking Hughes if, since she never got to (audibly) finish her solo at the hockey game, she’d like to do it right now on the radio. I quickly turned off the ignition and set the parking brake, and the boys and I got right out of the car, just in time not to hear Hughes say, “No, that’s OK, I’m cool.”

6 Responses to “Who Told Me Was My Dad”

  1. The Ridger said

    I don’t have anything to say about the construction, but I went to a basketball game last week and the singers’ mike was never on, as far as I could tell. But the crowd, instead of singing along, got extremely quiet as we all tried to hear them. From the soaring harmonies in the “rockets’ red glare” bit, they were pretty good…

  2. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    While I probably don’t use it very often, I don’t think I would have considered the fused relatives especially odd or old-fashioned. In particular, this “who told me was my dad”: Isn’t it common for children to say things like that (even if adults no longer do)? Perhaps it’s one of those steps in language development?

    • M. Makino said

      I agree. It’s not that it’s structurally simple but for one reason or another it feels childish to start a sentence with a fused relative, at least in this case. I would chalk the childishness evident in this case up to the prevalence of certain constructions under certain circumstances rather than language development. Aretha uses them without sounding childish (at least to me) in “What you want… Baby, I got / What you need … Do you know I’ve got it”. As the objects of certain verbs they’re probably more common than other structures.
      A facet of these “fused relatives” (are they different from indirect questions?) that I always found interesting was that when used as nouns they sometimes mean “the question itself” and sometimes “the answer to the question”, as in “Where we come from is a topic explored in biology” vs. “I am what I am”. My students sometimes benefited from having this pointed out explicitly.

  3. […] in January I wrote about an unusual sentence with a fused relative clause (aka a free relative). At the time, I wrote, […]

  4. said

    Who in their right mind would disagree with this ?

  5. […] and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may […]

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