Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Wide-scoping operators’ Category

It Might Be Modal Subordination and I Never Realized It

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2006

Doug and I have now finished the Great Brain series (well, except for that posthumously published eight volume, which I don’t really count). Now we’re reading Brave Buffalo Fighter, another book by John D. Fitzgerald, which I never came across as a kid. In one chapter, the tailgate on a family’s covered wagon comes open as they’re going up a riverbank, spilling all their supplies. The narrator’s brother Jerry blames the kids:

“They must have loosened the hooks and Mr. Cleaver didn’t notice it,” Jerry said.

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Posted in Kids' entertainment, Semantics, Wide-scoping operators | 5 Comments »

The Latest Non-Parallel Coordinations

Posted by Neal on January 3, 2006

I’ve been accumulating some more examples of coordinations in which some operator, such as a negation or question-marking is clearly intended to apply to all the coordinated elements in the coordination, but is positioned inside just the first one.

The first few are more negations. First, there was the time a few months back when Doug was playing with a Happy Meal toy, noticing that you could move its arms with a lever, but not vice versa. He said:

You can push this and these’ll move, but [you can’t push these] and [this will move].

That is, it is not the case that: you can push these (arms) and this (lever) will move.

Then there are a couple that I just read in the past week. One is from a book that my wife gave me just before Doug was born, which I’m finally getting around to reading, about inventor and shipwreck hunter Tommy Thompson:

“It was fun to run into someone who [wasn’t stodgy] and [thought at some point you should call it quits],” remembered Ellen. “He never thought there was some point where you had to call it quits.”
(Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, 1998, p. 89.)

Here you definitely know the negation fused into the wasn’t in the first coordinate also applies to the second coordinate, because Ellen restates the proposition about thinking you should call it quits all by itself, complete with its own negation (never). Next is one from a book she gave me for Christmas, which I am reading right away (since that’s what I do with books by this author):

“…she has vowed that [the sun shall not shine] or [the rain fall on her head] until he is home again.”
(George Macdonald Fraser, Flashman on the March, 2005, p. 49)

Moving out of the examples with negation, here is one with a modal, namely can. A TV ad for a hig-speed Internet provider has a guy saying:

[I can be on the computer] and [she’s talking on the phone].

Even though the can is buried between the subject and predicate of the first clause (I, be), it scopes semantically over both clauses. The guy means that it is possible for him to be on the computer and her to be talking on the phone.

And lastly, here’s one with only, from volume five in the Great Brain series that I’ve been reading to Doug:

And I would be lucky if [I only lost my allowance for six months] and [Papa and Mamma didn’t speak to me for a month].
(John D. Fitzgerald, The Great Brain Reforms, 1972, p. 15)

The narrator means he’ll be lucky if only the following occur: he loses his allowance for six months, and his parents give him the silent treatment for a month. Heh. Usually the complaint about only–indeed, the very complaint that James J. Kilpatrick was writing about once again in his column today–is that it’s placed to take too wide a scope when it actually takes a narrower scope, as in I only ate two instead of I ate only two. Here it’s just the opposite, with only looking like it should apply only to the clause it’s buried in, but actually applying to that clause and its sister in the coordination.

Posted in Semantics, Wide-scoping operators | 2 Comments »

More Coordination with Half-Negation

Posted by Neal on May 30, 2005

A while back, I wrote about these two sentences:

I nodded so hard I’m surprised [my neck didn’t snap] and [my head fall to the floor]. (Yann Martel, Life of Pi, p. 37)

I hope [she didn’t die] and [nobody told me]. (Greg Larson)

In each case, two clauses (indicated with square brackets and boldface) are coordinated; the first one contains a negation that scopes over both clauses, not just the one that contains it. That is, Yann Martel is surprised that NOT((neck snap) & (neck fall to floor)), and Greg Larson hopes that NOT((she die) & (nobody tell Greg)). I also mentioned how question markers could behave the same way, in sentences such as, “Do you want to ask for a raise but you’re afraid to do it?” And in fact, I now notice in Martel’s example that even the tense marking does this: The didn’t in the first clause must be taken to convey past time not only for clausemate snap, but also for fall in the second clause.

Now I have a couple more of these coordinations, again involving negation (instead of question formation or tense-marking). The first one is another one from Greg:

I’m really looking forward to this job. But like I have said before, I hope [I don’t work there], and [they pull off a mask, and go, “BLLLAAAAUURRRGHHH!!!” and be some horrible place]. If they do, they sure had me fooled good.

The next one is from a posting on a listserv concerning autism. I find this one especially interesting, since the negation here isn’t in the form of an auxiliary verb, as in the previous examples, but in the form of the subject no one:

In the true work force there is a nondiscrimination policy – [no one measures I.Q. points when you apply for a job] and [you are then paired with fellow employees who are of your mental ability]. You are mixed with the smartest of workers as well as some who might be more challenged to keep up though still typical.

These coordinations remind me of the FLoP coordinations: Where those have something trapped in the last coordinate that really belongs to all the coordinates, these have something trapped in the first one that really belongs to all of them–i.e. the negation, question-marking, or tense-marking. For an example of all three of these at once, we could have:

[Didn’t he get the job] and [the boss fire him a month later]?

I might even call these anti-FLoPs, but that name’s been taken.

Posted in Semantics, Wide-scoping operators | 3 Comments »

Faulty Parallelism, Concise Non-Parallelism

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2005

Eric Bakovic at Language Log has been intrigued by coordinations that for one reason or another, sound a bit off. In these posts he lists a few and figure out what bothers him about them. Mark Liberman talks about this kind of thought process, saying:

We need a new term. Prescriptive grammar says “thou shalt not say (things that meet conditions) XYZ”. Descriptive grammar says “love the vernacular, and say what you like”. But what do we call it when you’re taken grammatically aback by something you hear or read, and then try to figure out what the problem was?

The process he describes is one that I use quite a bit. “Hmm, a place to eat doesn’t (usually) mean a place that you’re actually going to consume. I wonder why that is? Are there patterns here waiting to be discovered?” So I’m glad someone’s putting a name on it. The name Liberman proposes is WTF grammar, although he doesn’t make clear what this kind of linguistic musing has to do with the World Trade Federation.

Some of the “WTF coordinations” that Bakovic discusses are examples that I sent him after his first post, which appear in a paper I wrote. But he also gets into a kind of coordination that I didn’t cover, with this bad boy here:

I nodded so hard I’m surprised [my neck didn’t snap] and [my head fall to the floor]. (Yann Martel, Life of Pi, p. 37)

His point is that even though the negation didn’t appears in only one of the coordinates, it really has scope over both. That is, an accurate paraphrase is not

…I’m surprised that my neck didn’t snap and I’m surprised that my head fell to the floor.

but rather

…I’m surprised that it’s not the case that [my neck snapped and my head fell to the floor].

This same thing happens in a sentence my friend Greg wrote about his grandmother. Before I get to it, though, consider the sentence

I hope she didn’t die.

This can be paraphrased as

I hope that it’s not the case that she died.

Now what Greg actually wrote was:

I hope she didn’t die and nobody told me.

Here it’s even more clear that the didn’t takes scope over both coordinates. An accurate paraphrase is not

I hope that it’s not the case that she died, and I hope that nobody told me.

Told him what? It doesn’t make sense. As with Bakovic’s example, the didn’t takes scope over both coordinated clauses, even though it belongs syntactically to only the first one. A more accurate paraphrase is

I hope that it’s not the case that [she died and nobody told me].

Negation’s not the only thing that can do this. This example on p. 1332 of CGEL does it with an interrogative marker (namely the inversion of did and you):

[Did you make your own contributions to a complying superannuation fund] and [your assessable income is less than $31,000]?

At first, these coordinations seem a bit wrong, but after closer analysis, you realize that there’s really not a better way to express them. “I hope that it’s not the case that my grandmother died and nobody told me”? “Is it the case that you made your own contributions … and your assessable income is less than $31K?”? Come on!

Posted in Wide-scoping operators | 3 Comments »