Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Ellipsis’ Category

Slippery Ellipsis

Posted by Neal on February 5, 2006

I remember sitting in my chemistry class one day during my junior year. The guy sitting in front of me was wearing his debate club T-shirt. On the back was our school mascot, a tiger, saying to another tiger, “Don’t panic.” The other tiger was replying, “I’m not!” (The debate club had some kind of inside joke involving the cathcphrase “Don’t panic” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Weird, I thought. When the preacher asks, “Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?” and you say, “I do,” I thought, you have to mentally copy take this woman into the spot where something should be following do: “I do take this woman to be….” And when he asks, “Will you love, honor, and cherish…?” and you answer, “I will,” it’s understood that the love, honor, and cherish is carried over to complete the I will sentence: “I will love, honor, and cherish….” But here, when Tiger One says, “Don’t panic,” and Tiger Two says, “I’m not,” you can’t just take the verb from the first utterance and use it to complete the second one. If you do, you get *I’m not panic, which doesn’t work.

Shouldn’t Tiger Two be saying, “I don’t”? Well, he could, if he means to say he never panics. Or he could say, “I won’t,” if he and Tiger One are talking about some future operation. But what if Tiger One wants the non-panicking to happen right now, and Tiger Two is telling him that right now, he’s not panicking? It looks like I’m not is the only way to go, and you just have to mentally tweak panic and turn it into panicking before you use it to complete Tiger Two’s sentence.

I was reminded of this T-shirt at last month’s LSA conference during a session on verb-phrase ellipsis–that is, verb phrases that lack a verb phrase, such as the I’m not, I do, and I will examples above. The speaker whose talk particularly reminded me of the Don’t panic T-shirt was Ivan Sag, who talked about mismatches much bigger than trifling morphological details like panic vs. panicking. Those have been recognized for many years, and Sag summarized the standard view that as long as the present and missing VPs have the same meaning, the ellipsis is OK. So since Tiger One and Tiger Two were both talking about a situation in which Tiger Two is panicking, the mismatch is allowed. But Sag then went on to present cases where there is a mismatch in meaning…

  • Strict vs. sloppy identity
    John loves his wife, and so does Harry
    (under the reading in which Harry loves Harry’s wife)
  • Active-passive mismatch
    This needs to be done quickly, and I will.

  • Resolution of indexicals
    A: Do you think they’ll like me?
    B: Of course they will! [i.e., will like you, not will like me]
    (from Sag’s handout)
  • I’m gonna send them an email saying that Ling 1 is something they could take. I don’t think many of them will, though.
    (understood verb not the main verb, but take, buried in a relative clause)
    (from Sag’s handout)
  • Your parents aren’t home, but suddenly the police are.
    (at your house, that is, not theirs)
    (from Sag’s handout)

Some of the mismatches earlier in the list can be explained while maintaining the same-meaning story, but by page 6 of the handout, example after example of more elaborate mismatches made a good argument for Sag’s point: Trying to write rules for VP ellipsis based just on syntax or even semantics is hopeless. What really matters is what listeners can infer from some situation and use to fill in the missing VP.

Posted in Ambiguity, Ellipsis, LSA, Sloppy and strict anaphora | 2 Comments »

Commonwealth What?

Posted by Neal on July 28, 2005

This letter appeared in a local advice column last week:

I’ve been dating this guy for almost three months. A few weeks ago we kind of just stopped talking. My friends tell me this is a commonwealth breakup. I would be so relieved if it was, because I don’t like him that way anymore. (link)

Commonwealth breakup? What does that mean? At first, it seemed like the sentence that this term appeared in was defining it. Her friends told her that “this”–i.e., a breakup accomplished by a mutual, tacit decision not to talk to one another anymore, rather than by the uttering of, “I need more space,” “It’s not you, it’s me,” “We should see other people,” etc.–was what people referred to as a commonwealth breakup. The choice of the word commonwealth to single out this kind of breakup doesn’t make sense to me, but at least I can know what the whole term refers to.

The trouble is that in the very next sentence, the writer says, “I would be so relieved if it was.” To get the full meaning of this sentence, I have to undo the ellipsis of what would have come after was, so I plug in what came after is in the previous sentence, and read, “I would be so relieved if it was [a commonwealth breakup].” Apparently the writer was already familiar with the concept of a commonwealth breakup. In that case, the new information that her friends were offering was not a definition of commonwealth breakup, but the claim that not contacting one another for a sufficiently long period of time qualifies.

So I’m left with no definition. Unless… maybe the unspoken phrase after “so relieved if it was” is not commonwealth breakup but just breakup. Hmm… nope. If I say, “Glen wanted to be an economics professor, and now he is,” I can only mean that he is now an economics professor, not a linguistics, physics, or Defense Against the Dark Arts professor.

I’ve found only one other attestation of commonwealth breakup, from a blog entry from November 2001. (I didn’t even know blogs existed then, but I guess they did.) Here it is:

Ok, the girlfriend and I started dating last Friday. She hasn’t talked to me since Wednesday, so that makes 5 days of actual contact between the two of us, and as of today, it’s been 4 days without contact. Is there some kind of commonwealth breakup rule? I’m thinking of inventing one, because this is simply idiotic. Bah!! To hell with girls! (link)

The context suggests that my original guess at a definition was correct, so maybe the letter-writer, in her confused state of mind, botched the ellipsis. It also sounds like this blogger may have even coined the term–it’s so strange that I have a hard time imagining more than one person coining it independently. If either of you readers has heard this term and knows for sure what it means or where it came from, I hope you’ll enlighten me.

Posted in Ellipsis, Lexical semantics | 4 Comments »

Throw Away Whatever You Want

Posted by Neal on November 11, 2004

I caught Adam in the act today. He had the refrigerator door open and was happily sliding the temperature controls back and forth. He’d just slid the freezer setting to zero when I got to him, and I explained that he had just turned the freezer off. Did he know what had happened the last time he did that? The ice in the freezer melted, I told him, and the food in there spoiled. We had to throw it all away, even the stuff we liked.

Actually, it was a good opportunity to wipe all the crud off the shelves, and the ice tray has now been freed of the deformed and fused-together ice cubes and ice dust that had slowly been taking over. But Adam doesn’t need to know that. Besides, this clean freezer is like a shiny new doorknob on a drab, battered door: It just makes it even more obvious how much the refrigerator proper needs a good cleaning (or “needs cleaned,” as they say around here). When was the last time I cleaned it, anyway? Oh, yes, I remember…

[harp music here]

We were getting the house ready for my parents’ annual visit, and while my wife went out grocery shopping, my job was to clean the fridge. Before she left, my wife said:

Throw away whatever you want.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked. “I think a better plan is to throw out whatever I don’t want, and keep whatever I want!” Ah, I kill myself sometimes. My wife must have already been out the door, since I didn’t hear her laugh.

Anyway, I had to admire the way two different syntactic facts had worked together to make my one-liner possible. First is the two relevant senses of want. There’s the infinitive-taking want, as in I want to go home, with the meaning of “want to do something”. Then there’s the transitive want, as in I want a cookie, with the meaning of “want to have something”. The second fact is the existence of verb-phrase ellipsis–the omission of a verb phrase in examples like, “Maybe Jim will let you get away with this, but I won’t,” where a second “let you get away with this” is understood to finish out the “I won’t” part of the sentence.

So what my wife intended an infinitive-taking want with ellipsis of the infinitive, like this–

Throw away whatever you want [to throw away].

I took as a transitive want, meaning “want to have”:

Throw away whatever you want [to have].

[harp music taking us back to the present]

As for today though… well, I guess the fridge-fridge doesn’t look too bad compared to the freezer-fridge. If I can just hold out for a few weeks, maybe they’ll be comparably dirty again, and the problem will be solved.

Posted in Ambiguity, Ellipsis, Fused relatives | 2 Comments »