Before You Drink That
Posted by Neal on August 8, 2013
As Adam was getting the DVD cued up and the subtitles turned on, I saw Doug walk in with his movie snacks: a bowl of chips and a tall glass of milk. A tall glass of milk! I had to speak up, fast:
Hey, Doug, before you drink that milk, you want to go for a run after the movie?
Doug’s response, naturally, was “What?” The before bit and the after bit were clashing with each other. What sequence of events was I proposing? Movie first, then run, then milk? But then how could he drink his milk while watching the movie?
But I’d bought myself enough time that I could explain what I’d meant. Doug had been wanting to do some running, in preparation for the grueling physical conditioning that he knew he was in for in band camp. Sometimes I would go running with him. The other relevant fact was that Doug had discovered that drinking a big glass of milk before he played a game of soccer or went on one of these runs usually wasn’t such a good idea. I just wanted to suggest the possibility of going running so that he could make his decision right now, and then drink the milk or save it for later accordingly.
In other words, before you drink that milk wasn’t modifying go for a run; it was modifying the whole sentence do you want to go running after the movie?. Actually, even that isn’t entirely accurate. Before you drink that milk was modifying the entire utterance. It was as if I was saying,
Before you drink that milk, I ask you: Do you want to …?
Cribbing from the introduction of a paper by Chris Potts, I see that modifiers like these have been called utterance modifiers, second-order adverbs, and pragmatic adverb, and illocutionary adverb. Others include frankly, just between you and me, and the oft-criticized usage of hopefully. Potts himself notes that they have a “metalinguistic” feel, using a word that I used in a recent post, and which my brother Glen asked me about in the comments. Metalinguistic describes something whose meaning isn’t part of the ordinary meaning you get from a phrase by using ordinary rules of grammar; rather, the meaning is about the speaker’s attitude. The best-known example of metalinguistic stuff is probably metalinguistic negation, a term coined by Larry Horn to describe utterances such as, “It’s not a shtraw, it’s a straw.” The speaker is not denying that the object is a straw; they’re objecting to someone’s pronunciation of the word straw.
So I had sandwiched the heart of the clause do you want to go running with an utterance modifier Before you drink that milk at the beginning and a VP modifier after the movie at the end. Doug, however, had taken them both as VP modifiers.
Here’s a diagram of just Do you want to go running after the movie?. You know after the movie is modifying the VP go for a run because the two phrases are under one roof, which is the bigger VP go for a run after the movie.
Now here’s a diagram of just Before you drink that milk, do you want to go for a run? with the before clause modifying the entire utterance, as I intended. (I don’t have a way of distinguishing sentential modifiers such as probably and utterance modifiers like frankly, but since that difference isn’t the main point of this post, I won’t worry about it.) You know that before you drink… is modifying the entire sentence do you want… because the two chunks combine to form another, bigger sentence.
Now here it is modifying just the VP go for a run. It looks almost the same as the earlier diagram, but there’s one difference. Notice that the PP label for before you drink… has a subscript 1, and that next to go for a run, there’s an empty place where you might find an adverb phrase, labeled GAP, with a matching subscript 1. This is the syntactic structure of a sentence with a so-called “extracted adjunct”; i.e. a verb modifier put at the beginning of the sentence instead of the usual place for VP modifiers.
So how do we parse before you drink… as modifying go for a run? Like this:
Now what happens if we try to parse a clause with both an extracted VP modifier and one in situ? It’d look sumpm like this:
Here, after the movie is modifying the VP go for a run, and before you drink that milk is modifying the larger VP go for a run after the movie.
In any case, Doug didn’t want to go for a run that day, so he drank his milk, ate his chips, and watched the movie. He did fine at band camp, by the way. He’s quite happy with the six pack that has begun to appear on his torso, and has surprised himself with how many pushups he’s become able to do in one go.
UPDATE, 10 Aug. 2013: What the hell happened?! The post that readers were commenting on up until now is not what I thought I had published! The whole bit about two PPs trying to fill the same spot is, as Randy noted, not a problem, and I thought I had taken that whole paragraph and diagram out. Furthermore, there was other stuff that I added, which did not appear in what got published. I have re-done the revisions that apparently didn’t stick last time, and the post in its current form is what I intended to publish.