Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Multiple-Level Coordination with And and But

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2014

I’ve continually been hearing this one ad on a podcast I listen to, promoting some kind of investing service. The speaker introduces the subject like this:

Want to save more, invest for the future, but don’t have time to be a full-on investor?

The fact that this sentence is an interrogative gets in the way of what I actually want to talk about, so I’ll just rephrase it as a declarative:

I want to save more, invest for the future, but don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

If you take this sentence to contain a syntactically parallel coordination, then it is saying that these three things are true about me:

  1. I want to save more.
  2. I invest for the future.
  3. I don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

That’s not the intended meaning, though. The intended meaning is that:

  1. I want to save more.
  2. I want to invest for the future.
  3. I don’t have time to be a full-on investor.

In short, this sentence is another example of a multiple-level coordination. Depending on how you parse the coordination, the first conjunct is either the present-tense verb phrase want to save more or the plain-form verb phrase save more; the second is the plain-form verb phrase invest for the future; and the final conjunct is the present-tense verb phrase don’t have time to be a full-on investor. Whichever way you go, the conjuncts are not of the same syntactic category.

In previous posts, I’ve summarized the analysis of Beavers & Sag (2004) for this kind of coordination, and written too-hastily about what seemed like a problem for their analysis. This sentence, though, really is a problem for B&S … that is, if it’s truly grammatical, and not simply a mistake.

As a recap, here is how B&S analyze the MLCs It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks and women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant. For the first one, the and is conjoining these three clauses:

  1. is sick
  2. is twisted
  3. smells like old socks

Because the second conjunct begins with some material that’s identical to the beginning of the first conjunct (namely is), that can be ellipsed (i.e., left unspoken). For the second MLC, or is conjoining these other three clauses:

  1. are pregnant
  2. are nursing
  3. may become pregnant

Applying B&S’s analysis to our investment example, we get something like the diagram below. (Actually, they have it so that it’s binary-branching all the way down, with want to save more coordinated with the entire chunk want to invest for the future but don’t have time…. But my diagram will do for our purposes.)

The second "want to" is not pronounced

B&S argue against interpreting MLCs as having a structure like the following, which the and or or is coordinating two items rather than three, and there is an understood extra conjunction in there, coordinating two smaller items within the first conjunct:

  1. is sick and twisted
  2. smells like old socks
  1. are pregnant or nursing
  2. may become pregnant

Applied to our investment example, the kind of analysis that B&S advise against would give us a structure like the one below. In this diagram, I put an explicit conjunction between the first two conjuncts, to show where the understood conjunction would go. Notice that the main coordination has only two conjuncts, one being want to save more and want to invest for the future, and the other being but don’t have ….

See the extra conjunction I put in there?

One of B&S’s reasons for not favoring such an interpretation is that you can’t just go calling commas or pauses conjunctions. Where would it end? Going that way would license sentences like I saw a dog a cat as grammatical. There other reason is that there is nothing to force that understood conjunction to be the same as the explicit one. In other words, why couldn’t we take these examples to mean “It’s sick or twisted, and smells like old socks” and “woman who are pregnant and nursing, or who may become pregnant”?

With that in mind, notice that the extra conjunction I supplied was not another but, but rather an and, so that the meaning of the whole coordinate structure is “A and B but C.” This makes sense, because the two things I want are similar, and should be joined by and. The but serves to draw a contrast between them on the one hand and the thing I don’t have time for on the other.

So if that second diagram is incorrect, let’s look again at B&S’s analysis, shown in the first one. There’s a problem with this one, too. As I wrote in this Grammar Girl episode, but isn’t like and and or, able to coordinate any number of items. It’s only able to coordinate two:

That’s because and shows addition, and or shows alternatives, and it’s easy to imagine lots of additions to a set, and lots of alternatives. But, on the other hand, shows contrast, and it’s hard to conceive of a contrast between more than two things. We can say slow but steady, but we can’t say slow, careful, but steady.

According to the B&S analysis, our example sentence could be expanded out to have the form “A but B but C,” in violation of the two-conjuncts limit for but.

So what now? We could appeal to semantics. Although but conventionally implicates that there is a contrast between two propositions, there is no truth-conditional difference between and and but. So we could say that’s why the but gets away with this sort of behavior here.

Or there’s the cop-out solution of saying that the sentence is a grammar mistake, something that the writer would correct by themself if they thought about if more carefully. In favor of the cop-out solution is the fact that MLCs depending on and and or are too numerous for me even to bother blogging about anymore, whereas this is the only MLC with but that I’ve ever come across. So if you come across more MLCs with but, definitely leave a comment and tell me about them!

4 Responses to “Multiple-Level Coordination with And and But

  1. Natalie said

    I’m a non-native speaker of English, so forgive me for asking a silly question. Why do we say”She can write AND read” but “She can’t write OR read” ? My niece’s English teacher crossed out “AND” in the second sentence and replaced it with “OR”. What’s the rule?

    • Neal said

      “She can’t write AND read” means that she can’t do these two things at the same time, in the same way that “Don’t drink and drive” means don’t drink and drive at the same time, or don’t do both in the same interval of time. It’s still possible that she can write or read, and it’s still permitted to drink and it’s still permitted to drive. “She can’t write OR read” means that no matter whether you pick writing OR reading from that set, she can’t do it. “Don’t drink or drive” would likewise prohibit all drinking and all driving.

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