Minding the Gaps (Again)
Posted by Neal on October 29, 2011
I was reading an article in the Life & Arts section of the Columbus Dispatch this morning, about what effect the iPod has had in the ten years since its introduction. A sidebar had quotations from people in the entertainment industry giving their thoughts on the iPod. One Martin Atkins had this to say:
It’s made some music less special — more of a background incidental thing than something to sit in the middle of the stereo field and listen to uninterrupted.
It was a nice specimen to add to my pile of coordinated verb phrases (VPs) in which one VP (or more) contains a gap, but not all of them do. I’ve written about these in various other posts, so I’m tempted to just document this example and leave it. But I’ve learned that I do pick up a new reader now and then, so I’ll say again why coordinations like this one are interesting.
It is commonly said that items joined by a conjunction have to be “parallel”, but what exactly is meant by parallel varies from person to person. Examples like this one are non-parallel in a way I’ll describe shortly, but are usually not even noticed by native speakers.
The non-parallelism in this example has to do with whether the coordinated VPs contain gaps, i.e., a place where something like a subject or object (or even an adverb) is missing. The VP listen to __ uninterrupted is missing an object of a preposition (specifically, the preposition to). That gap corresponds to the pronoun something. You could move something into the gap and end up with listen to something uninterrupted. In contrast, the VP sit in the middle of the stereo field does not contain any gap to correspond to something. Try putting something into that VP, and you end up with something ungrammatical, like *sit in the middle of the stereo field something. Now I suppose you could insert something as a direct object of sit, if your dialect allows sit as a transitive verb, and get sit something in the middle of the stereo field. That might be grammatical, but it’s not what Atkins meant. He wasn’t talking about placing a music-playing device in the middle of its own stereo field and listening to it; he had in mind sitting down in the middle of the stereo field of a music-playing device and listening to it.
Non-parallel coordinations like these are said to violate the “Across-the-Board” (ATB) constraint, to the effect that if one of the coordinated elements has a gap, all of them do. Clearly, this constraint is invalid, but the name is well-enough known that examples that violate it are sometimes known as “non-ATB coordinations”. Non-ATB coordinations that refer to related activities that occur together in some larger, typical situation, usually have a gap in the last item in the coordination, and this example is true to form, with the gap occurring in the second element, listen to uninterrupted.
The iPod article on the front page, and continued on page 2, where I found that non-ATB coordination. When I finished reading about iPods, I turned to the funny pages. There I read Sally Forth, a comic that I don’t even know why I read anymore. I don’t like the stories much, and I hate how they’re drawn. So I won’t bother linking to today’s strip in any online comics archive or anything; I’ll just go straight to the utterance I read in one of the word balloons:
I found it, Sal! The perfect course for me to enroll in and meet new people!
Another non-ATB coordination! In this one, the VP enroll in __ has a gap for the object of in, corresponding to course. The VP meet new people, on the other hand, has no gap. Its direct object is right there in plain view: new people. This coordination of VPs is referring to a sequence of events in a cause-effect relationship: enrolling in the course will result in meeting new people. This kind of non-ATB coordination usually does not have a gap in the final coordinated element, and this example bears that out. It’s the first VP, enroll in __ that has the gap, not the second.
As I said, I’ve written about these before, but it was fun to find an example of two varieties of non-ATB coordinations within five minutes of one another in a single section of the newspaper.