Linguistically Lost Again
Posted by Neal on March 12, 2012
For the past couple of months, the Netflix traffic in our house has ground to a halt, with The Bourne Supremacy and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog languishing on our mantel. During that time, our family movie nights have been spent pushing our way through seasons 1 and 2 of Lost on DVD, now that Doug and Adam are old enough to follow it. I wonder if we’re engaging in binge-viewing, a term I just heard in the past couple of weeks, but which seems to have been around since at least 2001. Maybe not; maybe you have to watch all the episodes without stopping to do other things like work or go to school before you can claim to have binge-viewed a set of episodes. (Did you catch my backformed compound verb there?)
I blogged about Lost a couple of times back in 2006. Now, during a second viewing, I’m catching not only foreshadowing and character connections that I missed the first time; I’m picking up linguistically interesting utterances that I missed, too.
First is essentially the same phrase, spoken by two characters in two episodes:
The button we have to push every 108 minutes or the island’s gonna explode [Charlie]
The button you gotta push every 108 minutes or the world ends. [Dave]
This is one of those coordinated relative clauses in which one of the clauses contains a gap and the other doesn’t. The one with the gap is we gotta push __ every 108 minutes; the one without the gap is the island’s gonna explode. Together, they sound fine, but try to make the one without a gap stand alone, and it’s no good:
[*]The button the island’s gonna explode. (only grammatical if the island will cause the button to explode)
[*]The button the world ends. (only grammatical if the world will end the button)
More specifically, it’s one of these asymmetric coordinations in which the conjunction is or instead of and. Those are a bit rarer, and tend to be overlooked in the literature on the subject (at least, in the papers I’ve read). I’ve blogged about them most recently in this post, about “the pot we have to shit or get off of”.
The other phrase I noted during these second viewings was one from Hurley, who was asked if he knew were Ana Lucia had gone, and answered sardonically:
That would assume that anyone actually tells me anything.
Anyone and anything are negative polarity items (click on the category label for all the relevant posts, or here for a short one that will give you the idea). They are most at home in negated sentences (I don’t want anything), questions (Do you want anything?), or sentences that express some kind of limitation (Only a few people know anything about this). But none of those is the case in Hurley’s sentence. The only negation there is an implied one, the unspoken proposition, “No one tells me anything.” I asked negation expert Larry Horn what he thought about NPIs in this sentence, and he observed that NPIs like the ones in Hurley’s sentence sound bad again when you specifically say that the assumption could actually be correct. He offered this comparison:
on the unlikely assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch (here’s some guacamole that would go nicely on the side)
#on the plausible assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch,…
So tell me, how does this sound?
That would assume, correctly, that anyone tells me anything.