Posted by Neal on October 25, 2012
I dropped by a weekly discussion group at OSU yesterday, to hear Carl Pollard talk about the version of categorial grammar he’s currently developing. When it came to prepositions, he made a distinction between prepositional phrases that actually referred to a location (as in I saw a mysterious figure on the roof); and those that might as well just be plain noun phrases for all the meaning the preposition contributes. The example Carl gave was depend, which takes an on-PP as a complement, as in depend on me. He proposed not even calling on me in this example a prepositional phrase; instead, its syntactic category (its “tecto” in Carl’s jargon) would be simply be an “On Phrase”.
It can be tricky identifying these “dummy” prepositions. It’s easy enough to discard clear cases of meaningful prepositions, in verb phrases like walk to school, but it gets harder as the prepositionals become metaphorical, in phrases such as stare at him. Furthermore, you have to avoid “intransitive prepositions” (sometimes called particles), in phrases like tie up the prisoner. You might mistake up for a dummy preposition because it certainly doesn’t seem to contribute any spatial meaning. The trouble is that it also doesn’t take an object. Although it might look like the prisoner is the object, of up, if you replace the prisoner with a pronoun, you quickly realize that up isn’t taking it as an object. If it were, a phrase like *tie up him would be grammatical, just like stare at him is. Instead, the phrasal verb has to “wrap” around its pronoun direct object: tie him up. So to get a true dummy preposition, you want a preposition that contributes no spatial meaning, and also takes an object. The on after depend meets these requirements.
To further demonstrate that this kind of meaningless PP was a different thing than an ordinary PP, Carl ran it through a classic ambiguity test (which I’ve described here), having a single on-PP function in both ways at once:
It’s on Mt. Everest that I live and depend.
I laughed, and Carl said, “I knew you’d get that!” And to fellow syntactician Bob Levine, who was turning around in his seat to look at me: “Neal can coordinate anything!”
“That sentence wasn’t grammatical for you, was it?” Bob asked.
“No,” I answered. “That’s why I’m laughing!”
Gotta love that linguist humor. Where else would It’s on Mt. Everest that I live and depend work as a comedy one-liner? If you’ve got some others, let’s hear them!