Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Multiple-level coordination’ Category

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!

Posted in Multiple-level coordination | 3 Comments »

Come In, Be Productive, or Just Relax

Posted by Neal on May 29, 2013

My sister Ellen got married this past weekend, and we’re all happy for her. (You know, the one whose father read to her when she was young, who was subjected to stupid linguistic humor from her brothers as a girl, who graduated from UTexas, earned her MD, and is now doing her residency?) One thing I’ve admired about Ellen since she started dating is that she doesn’t tolerate whiny or disrespectful guys. She dated some losers along the way (and who doesn’t?), but when their true nature became apparent, she dumped ‘em. This guy has passed her filter, and we’re glad to have him in the family.

Anyway, during our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the way back home, I noticed this sign outside a lounge that classier people than you get to hang out in:

Choose one. No, two! But not the last two.

Syntactically, this coordination is unremarkable. No weird multiple-level stuff going on, no right-node wrapping, or gapping, or other weird non-parallelisms or coordinations of different kinds of phrases. We have three imperative clauses joined by or: come in, be productive, just relax. Semantically, though, it doesn’t work for me. I think this was supposed to be a nested coordination, like this:

[Come in and [be productive or just relax]].

Unless, of course, the intended meaning is a three-way choice between coming in and doing whatever; staying out and being productive; and staying out and relaxing.

In other coordinations that seem to be missing a conjunction (i.e. the multiple-level coordinations such as sick (and) twisted and smells like old socks), the missing conjunction is the same as the one that isn’t missing. But here, the missing conjunction is and, while the audible one is or. So now the question is whether this is simply a mistake, or a variation in grammar as widespread as multiple-level coordinations? Since it’s the first example of its kind that I’ve found, I’m calling it an error. What do you think?

Posted in Multiple-level coordination, Other weird coordinations, Semantics | 7 Comments »

There Was Supposed to Be a Gap!

Posted by Neal on July 2, 2010

In the newspaper yesterday, I read about the latest reboot of the Wonder Woman comic book, in an article by George Gene Gustines of the New York Times News Service. In sketching out the previous reboots, Gustines stated that are one point,

The character was then overhauled, her previous continuity erased, and ….

How will the sentence finish? It starts with a clause, The character was then overhauled, and continues with a clause missing the auxiliary verb was: her previous continuity erased. This is an example of a kind of coordination called gapping, which I wrote about in this post. So I’m expecting the last item in the coordination to be another clause with a gap instead of a was, like her hair color changed to red. I’d even accept it with a missing were instead of was; for example, her golden wristbands replaced with finger-activated web fluid dispensers. So let’s see how it ends:

The character was then overhauled, her previous continuity erased, and she starred in Volume 2 as a heroine new to the world.

She starred in Volume 2 as a heroine new to the world? An entire clause, complete with verb? What is this? It’s kind of like those multiple-level coordinations, like this one from Wikipedia’s article on Wonder Woman’s publication history:

She was beautiful, intelligent, strong, yet still possessed a soft side. (link)

Adjective, adjective, adjective, yet verb phrase. The adjectives are all part of a verb phrase that begins with was; the verb phrase still possessed a soft side is a verb phrase. But Gustines’s gapping sentence is different. The things he’s coordinating are all at the same level in the sentence: They’re all top-level clauses in the sentence. It’s just that one of them is missing its auxiliary verb. I don’t know if the analyses of gapping that are out there predict that you can do this.

Can you do it? How does the sentence sound to you?

Posted in Gapping, Multiple-level coordination | 6 Comments »

Two MLCs in Ten Minutes

Posted by Neal on December 14, 2009

Listening to NPR as I drove Doug and Adam to school this morning, I heard someone talking about the Hyde Amendment. He mentioned the usual restrictions on how federal funds should be limited in paying for abortions: They shouldn’t pay for abortions “unless the pregnancy is a result of rape –“

Or incest, I thought, or … oh! I smell an imminent multiple-level coordination! I waited, and was rewarded with:

…unless the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest, or the mother’s life is in danger.

Clause: the pregnancy is a result of rape. Noun phrase (with material from preceding clause understood to turn it into a full clause): [the pregnancy is a result of] incest. Clause: the mother’s life is in danger.

I turned onto the side street, pulled into the school parking lot, and let Doug out. I’d scarcely driven two blocks away when I heard someone say during a story on the No Child Left Behind Act, “A teacher must have a college degree, a license to teach –“

I sense another MLC coming up, I thought. Right again:

A teacher must have a college degree, a license to teach, and be competent in the subject.

Verb phrase: have a college degree. Noun phrase (with material from preceding VP understood to turn it into a VP): [have] a license to teach. Verb phrase: be competent in the subject.

How about that? Two MLCs in less than ten minutes. Not only that, we have some nice variety. One of them has or for a conjunction, while the other has and. These pop up so often and in such smooth speech that I am even more convinced that they’re not errors, but something generated by speakers’ ordinary rules of coordination syntax. What would be interesting to find out would be how (or whether) the MLCs that draw the ire of grammarians differ from the ones that go under their radar.

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Posted in Multiple-level coordination | 1 Comment »

Variations on Multiple-Level Coordination

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2009

In the multiple-level coordinations I’ve written about before, the coordinated items (which I’ll call conjuncts) have been two smaller phrases and a bigger one. For example, in

It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks,

the first conjunct is an adjective (sick), the second is an adjective (twisted), and the third is a verb phrase (smells like old socks).

Actually, I’m more inclined to look at this kind of coordination as having a small conjunct between two larger ones. In this example, the first larger conjunct would be not just the adjective sick, but the entire verb phrase [i]s sick. The smaller conjunct is always missing something that appears in an immediately adjacent one; in the sick/twisted example, the small conjunct twisted could be expanded into a verb phrase like the other two by adding the is from the preceding conjunct, like this:

It’s sick, is twisted, and smells like old socks.

Later on I found a slightly different kind of multiple-level coordination, like the one above except that the smaller conjunct’s missing material comes from the conjunct right after it instead of the one right before it. That was the Dark Knight coordination

They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.

The “bigger” conjuncts here aren’t actually bigger than the smaller one, but they are closer to being full verb phrases. They are three passive participial verb phrases — that is, strings of words that, in combination with the be, make a good passive verb phrase: bought, bullied, and negotiated with. The “smaller” conjunct is reasoned, which isn’t quite a participial verb phrase: It’s missing a with. The with, of course, is understood from the last conjunct, negotiated with. One way of phrasing it in a syntactically parallel way would be:

They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned with, or negotiated with.

Now I’ve come across a couple of other variations on MLCs. In all the previous examples, whether the smaller conjunct takes its understood material from the conjunct right before it or right after it, it’s still sandwiched between bigger conjuncts. Not with this one:

I had to promise to do all his chores for a month, give him my braided leather whip and fifteen cents in cash.
(Papa Married a Mormon, John D. Fitzgerald, 1955, p. 196)

In this example, the smaller conjunct comes at the end. The conjuncts are:

  1. a verb phrase: promise to do all his chores for a month
  2. another verb phrase: give him my braided leather whip
  3. a noun phrase: fifteen cents in cash

As with the other examples, though, the missing material in the smaller conjunct is supplied from a neighboring conjunct: give him.

The other variation is multiple-level coordination with correlative conjunctions. From a column I read in the newspaper a couple of months ago:

If they can’t find you these days, you’re either a genius, a hermit or they aren’t looking very hard.
(Leonard Pitts, Jr. column, Sept. 8, 2009)

If it were just You’re a genius, a hermit, or they aren’t looking very hard, it would be just an MLC like many of the other discussed here: The or seems to be joining a clause (You’re … a genius), a noun phrase (a hermit), and then another entire clause (they aren’t looking very hard).

But this sentence has an extra complication: Instead of a coordinating conjunction like and or or linking the (unlike) phrases, it’s a pair of correlative conjunctions: either … or. Without going into messy details, I’ll just say that the first of a pair of correlative conjunctions is often able to appear in places other than right next to its conjunct. You can say, Either you got it or you didn’t, with either and or each right before a clause; or, you can say You either got it or you didn’t and have the same meaning, but with the either pushed inside its clause. So in Pitts’s example, instead of Either you’re a genius, a hermit, or they’re not looking very hard, we get the either pushed into that first conjunct: You’re either a genius…..

I guess there’s nothing really new going on here. Nonparallel structures with correlative conjunctions have been around for years, and so have multiple-level coordinations. This is just the first time I’ve seen them in the same structure.

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Posted in Multiple-level coordination | 5 Comments »

And/Or Multiple-Level Coordination

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2009

National Grammar Day, eh? I don’t know … to me, March 4 will always be Exelauno Day, a day my Ancient Greek professor at the University of Texas declared because the Greek verb εξελαυνω means “march forth”. Get it? Besides, every day is Grammar Day here at Literal-Minded. So I’ll just carry on with the kind of stuff I always talk about…

Well, how else was I going to illustrate and/or?In a post from November, I wrote, “And that reminds me of yet another multiple-level coordination I found just today, one that’s different from any others I’ve found. But that’s a different post.” Here it is:

I am not employed by the Knowledge Is Power Program, involved with it in any way, and do not have a child in a KIPP school. (Michelle Appelbaum, letter to the editor, The Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 29, 2008)

Here we have an adjective phrase (more specifically a passive participial phrase, employed by the Knowledge Is Power program), another adjective phrase (involved with it in any way), and then an entire verb phrase (do not have a child in a KIPP school). That much is like plenty of other multiple-level coordinations I’ve written about. What’s different is how this coordination would look if you expanded it out to be fully parallel. With a typical example, like this canonical one –

Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus.

– the simplest way of making it parallel would be to put in another and, like this:

Be pompous and obese, and eat cactus.

Now we have one and coordinating two adjectives, pompous and obese; and another and coordinating two verb phrases: be pompous and obese, and eat cactus.

However, as Beavers and Sag point out in the analysis I wrote about, if we take there to be a silent conjunction between the first two coordinated elements in a multiple-level coordination, then how do we account for the fact that the silent conjunction must always be the same as the overt conjunction before the last element? That is, how do we account for the fact that Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus means “Be pompous AND be obese AND eat cactus,” and not “Be pompous OR be obese AND eat cactus”? They develop their analysis to ensure that the missing conjunction is always the same one as the overt conjunction.

The and/or multiple-level coordination from the newspaper shows that Beavers and Sag’s analysis needs some adjustment. It’s probably significant that the understood or is in the scope of a negation (I am not). The fully expanded set of propositions could, after all, be controlled by a single conjunction, if we thought of it as

I am not employed… and I am not involved…, and I do not have a child in the school.

Since NOT(p OR q) is logically equivalent to ((NOT p) AND (NOT q)), we can turn the understood or into an and. Unfortunately, what I’ve just done is called (to use a technical linguistic term) “hand-waving.” What remains is to figure out exactly how the negation and or business would be formally implemented in Beavers and Sag’s system.

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Posted in Multiple-level coordination | 11 Comments »

More Christmas Song Confusion

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2008

jesus_nativityDoug and Adam participated in our church’s Christmas play last Sunday (uh, the Sunday before last? two Sundays ago?), and as I listened, I noticed a couple of changes the Sunday school teachers had put in the lyrics of the carols they sang. First of all, they’d changed traverse to travel in “We Three Kings”. Second, they had the kids singing “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!” Not the Lord is come, but the Lord has come. I think the motive for both changes was the same: Too many kids would mess up the unfamiliar words and forms and say them this way anyway, so they might as well get everyone “singing from the same hymnbook” (Ha! Get it?). And if you’re wondering why it should ever have been the Lord is come in the first place, Grammar Girl explains it in one of her more linguisticky episodes. I’ve linked to it before, but I’m doing it again here for convenience.

A few days later, Doug and Adam and I were wrapping presents in the living room while I had the iPod shuffling through the Christmas music. As it played “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” I found myself wondering once again about the line

Oh come, let us adore him.

Wasn’t it strange to be suggesting that we should do something that usually you don’t have conscious control over? It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s be surprised!”, or “Let’s love to go to the movies!”, or “I know, let’s hate runny scrambled eggs!” I wasn’t wondering as much as I did when I was a kid, because when I took high school Latin, one of the first things we did was learn to recite the Latin version, “Adeste Fideles”. I saw that the line Oh come, let us adore him corresponded to the Latin Venite adoremus — so adore was clearly a pretty direct borrowing from Latin. Later in the class I learned that orare meant “to pray”, and ad was a prefix that could go with a lot of verbs. So I figured that adore must have originally meant something like “pray to”, and then undergone a semantic shift. Nevertheless, I still wondered about it somewhat, because during all these years, I’d never actually gotten around to looking it up.

As I was thinking all this, Doug said, “Why do they say, ‘Oh come, let us adore him’?”

“You know, Doug, I’ve wondered about that for years,” I said. I told him my suspicion, and then hit on a radical idea. I could turn around, and without even standing up, reach the dictionary in the bookshelf behind me, and find out once and for all what was going on with adore. In short, I was right. The earliest definition was to revere or worship, and the “really like” meaning came later. Now that I’ve looked at the online OED, too, I see that the word entered the language in the early 1300s, and the “highly regard” meaning that has eroded to “really like” first appeared in the 1500s.

frostyContinuing on the subject of confusing words or phrases in Christmas songs, I heard “Frosty the Snowman” playing, and it occurred to me that the line

With corncob pipe and a button nose and two eyes made out of coal

was just asking to be mondegreened. I checked it out, and sure enough, at least one person mis-heard the line in the way that I was thinking.

stnickAnd last, here’s another line from “The Night Before Christmas” (or if you really want to be pedantic about it, “A Visit from St. Nick”), which I’ve written about before:

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

What do you know? It’s another multiple-level coordination, one that I never noticed until this year. We have a verb phrase (sprang to his sleigh), another verb phrase (to his team gave a whistle), and an entire clause (away they all flew like the down of a thistle) joined by a single and.

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Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Multiple-level coordination | 13 Comments »

Coordination and Ellipsis, Part 2

Posted by Neal on August 24, 2008

OK, after giving the background, I’m finally ready to show how Beavers & Sag 2004 handle multiple-level coordination. First we’ll do one of the kinds typified by Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus that most of the entries in the “Multiple-level coordination” category are about, and which they specifically intend their analysis to cover. Then we can move on to the one from The Dark Knight: These people can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ellipsis, Multiple-level coordination | 5 Comments »

Coordination and Ellipsis, Part 1

Posted by Neal on August 23, 2008

So before I show how Beavers & Sag’s analysis of coordination works for the Dark Knight coordination, it’s worth showing how it handles ordinary coordination. They start off with an assumption about the structure of coordinated phrases. I’ll illustrate with the example the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here’s one structure you might assign to this phrase:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ellipsis, Multiple-level coordination | 4 Comments »

Dark Knight Non-Parallelism

Posted by Neal on August 22, 2008

Doug was disappointed that I wouldn’t let him see The Dark Knight last weekend, when his friend was seeing it to celebrate his birthday. It was a good movie, but some of the scenes were a bit too realistically violent for me to be comfortable sending him to see.

No, I don’t want to hear it! Yes, I know Dad took me to see Jaws when I was six years old, and I was glad he did. I remember jumping when that severed head tumbled into sight when the divers were investigating the sunken boat. (“That head was artificial!” a classmate told me in school that fall. He was probably right.) And yes, I remember going to see Jaws 2 a couple of years later for a friend’s birthday party. I had a good time. What of it?

As for The Dark Knight, here’s the line that made the biggest impression on me, spoken to Bruce Wayne by his servant Alfred, regarding the kind of criminals the Joker was organizing:

They cannot be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Multiple-level coordination | 3 Comments »


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