Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Comparative correlatives’ Category

Comparative Correlatives Part III

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2013

All right, so in my last post I was talking about comparative correlative structures, sentences like The more I learn, the less I know, and more specifically, comparative correlatives like this one:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information … (link)

In this example, the comparative phrase the fewer companies is linked (by the relative pronoun who to the subject of the predicate store your credit card information. The thing is, do you phrase it as seen above, as a relative clause with the who, or would you do it like this, without the who?

The fewer companies store your credit card information …

That’s what I was thinking about in my last post. Now I want to take a detour to another kind of comparative correlative clause, a kind that we get, in fact, in the second part of our example:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information, the better for your financial safety.

The second part of this comparative correlative structure, the better for your financial safety, doesn’t have a clause to go with it, with a gap for the better for your financial safety to fill in. We have to imagine that gappy clause ourselves, something like this:

… the better for your financial safety [it will be ___].

In this example, the bare comparative better for your financial safety is an adjective phrase, but there are plenty of examples with bare comparative noun phrases. Here’s one with a bare comparative noun phrase in the first half, and the bare comparative the better in the second:

The more cats [there are ___], the better [it will be ___]. (link)

Now let’s get back to So now suppose that instead of more we have fewer; instead of the noun cats, we have companies, and not just any companies but companies who store your credit card information:

The fewer companies who store your credit card information [there are ___], the better [it will be ___].!

In other words, maybe the who store your credit card information isn’t the clausal part of the comparative correlative at all, and the real clause is unspoken. If that’s possible, then we should also expect comparative correlative structures like this in which the gappy there are ___ clause is actually spoken, or written. However, it most likely wouldn’t have there are at the end, the way I wrote it above. The noun phrase is so long that it would get split up and wrapped around the there are, like this:

The fewer companies there are who store your credit card information, the better!

And here they are, as found in COCA and through Google at large:

  • …the more people there are who reach that state of mind…
  • …the more people there are who love Mr. Darcy…
  • …the more people there are who can write…
  • …the fewer people there are who are willing to support them.
  • Sometimes the fewer people there are, the less there are to worry about…
  • For the higher one lives, the fewer people there are.
  • …the fewer people there are similar to you in racial background…
  • the more things there are to remember and the more things there are that happened differently than we expected.
  • …the more chance there was of getting snagged on one of the myriad protrusions.

So it’s possible to suppose that for all speakers, a comparative correlative clause isn’t some kind of relative clause; it’s just a comparative phrase followed possibly by an ordinary that and then by an appropriate gappy clause. If you think you have a relative clause with a who or that, it’s really just part of a comparative noun phrase, and the gappy clause is just unspoken.

However, if that’s the case, then we should never find things like … uh-oh …

  • The more people that there are who develop a love of nature… (link)
  • The more people that there are getting desperate about eating and surviving… (link)
  • The more people that there are living downtown… (link)

Probably, all these ways of creating or parsing a comparative correlative structure are out there, with different speakers arriving at their own interpretation of how they work, and never realizing that other speakers might have arrived at some other interpretation.

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Correlatively Comparatively Speaking, Part II

Posted by Neal on March 14, 2013

On Fritinancy, Nancy Friedman commented on a poster for a walk for breast cancer. Here’s the poster, lifted from Nancy’s blog post:

Survival walks beat death marches.

Nancy’s reaction:

As I see it, the line needs a second relative pronoun to be properly parallel in structure: “The more of us who walk, the more of us who survive.”

She wanted another who in there so that the two parts of this comparative correlative would be maximally parallel, but in fact, there are some speakers who wouldn’t even put a who in the first part. As for me, I’m not even sure what I would do. (Maybe I should do a search on this blog and see if I’ve generated any data that would say.)

The uncertainty comes from the fact that comparative correlatives like the one Nancy found are a little different from others. In many comparative correlative clauses, the comparative part — the X-er — corresponds to a gap in the remainder of the clause. This gap might be a direct object gap, as in (1) below; an indirect object gap, as in (2); or a prepositional object gap, as in (3). It can even be a predicative adjective gap, as in (4), adverbial gap, as in (5).

  1. DO gap: the more [I learn __]
  2. IO gap: the more people [you give __ a break]
    (if you allow extraction from ditransitive VPs)
  3. PrepObj gap: the more people [we talk to ___]
  4. PredAdj gap: the happier [we’ll be ___]
  5. Adv gap: the more [we get together ___]

Interestingly, all these kinds of comparative clauses can also have a relative pronoun before the gappy part of the clause, as if it were an actual relative clause. Even the gaps for predicative adjectives and adverbs can take a relativizer, as long as it’s that. Instead of making up examples this time, here are some from Google:

  1. DO gap: The more people who [you can get ___ to dine with us that day]
  2. IO gap: the more people that [you give __ a break]
    (OK, I did make this one up)
  3. PrepObj gap: the more people that [you can connect with ___]
  4. PredAdj gap: “The Smarter That [I Think I Am ___], the Dumber [I Get ___]”
  5. Adv gap: The faster that [the boat goes ___]

Example (9) is interesting in that it’s like Nancy’s example: a relativizer in the first clause (the smarter that I think I am), but not in the second (the dumber I get). But let’s leave aside relative pronouns for the moment and talk about the main difference between Nancy’s example and other comparative correlatives. It’s easier to see if we put some brackets in them and gap labels, the way we did with the others:

  1. Subj gap: the more of us who [___ walk]
  2. Subj gap: the more of us [___ survive]

In these examples, the comparative phrase the more of us corresponds to a subject gap in the remainder of the clause. In (11), this linkage is handled by the relative pronoun who. In (12), it isn’t. If you think of comparative clauses as relative-clause structures, then probably you don’t like (12), because in English, you typically can’t delete relative pronouns that connect to a subject gap. (The exceptions are in sentences such as There was a farmer had a dog.) But if you never thought of comparative clauses as a kind of relative clause — in other words, if you just thought of them as the, plus a phrase containing a comparative adjective/adverb/determiner, plus a clause missing that same kind of phrase — then there should be no problem with (12).

If you’re one of the speakers who are OK with (12), and in general don’t think of comparative correlatives as a species of relative clause structure, I suspect that you still might be comfortable uttering comparative clauses like the more of us who walk. The reason involves a third kind of comparative correlative that I haven’t been talking about. However, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of worms, which will have to come in a separate post. See you then!

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Correlatively Comparatively Speaking

Posted by Neal on July 2, 2010

Congratulations to Dr. Elizabeth Allyn Smith, who successfully defended her dissertation this afternoon. It was touch and go when Craige Roberts pressed her to make sure she really knew what she was talking about when the brought up donkey anaphora, but we knew the doctoral candidate was doing well when Carl Pollard (no webpage available) suggested Smith improve the dissertation by highlighting how it explains details that other analyses of her topic don’t even try to address. And what is that topic?

I’ll get to that, but while I’m delivering shout-outs to friends who recently got their PhDs, here’s a belated one for Yusuke Kubota, who graduated this past spring. I’m not blogging about his topic (at least not right now), because it focuses on Japanese syntax and semantics, and will be harder to shape into something blog-friendly.

For her dissertation, Smith wrote about English comparative correlatives — that is, sentences like this one (from CoCA):

the closer I get to forty (oh God), the more I care about my appearance.

To sum up: You have two clauses. They each have a the, followed by a comparative form (closer, more). The meaning (in this example) is not just that someone is closer to forty than they were, and cares more about their appearance than before; it’s that there is an increase in caring proportional to their closeness to age forty.

Smith’s aim is to develop explicit rules that show how sentences like these get their meaning. You can’t just say, “When you have the plus a comparative in one clause and the plus a comparative in another clause, you get such-and-such a meaning”: That’s just saying what the phenomenon is, but it’s not explaining how the meanings of the individual words combine to create the meaning we know the sentence has. It has to get the meaning somehow; it doesn’t happen by magic.

Smith’s proposal is to hard wire the meaning into the words most responsible for it: the the‘s. Furthermore, unlike previous proposals, she argues that there are two lexical entries for the (in addition, mind you, to the ordinary lexical entry for the as the definite article); they’re homonyms. If I followed her presentation correctly, the the in the first clause is wired up so that it combines with closer to produce a certain meaning, which can combine with the closer and I and get to forty to produce a more complete meaning. This more complete meaning still lacks something, namely, the meaning supplied by the second clause, the more I care about my appearance. Meanwhile, the the in this second clause, with its slightly different wiring, ultimately results in the more I care about my appearance being unable to stand on its own; all it can do is combine with a clause that’s looking for it, such as the closer I get to forty. When they combine, the sentence is complete.

I think it’s interesting that Smith has wired the two the‘s differently; she pointed out that previous analyses never questioned that there was only one the in these constructions … though they were usually silent or evasive about how the correct meaning could be composed. The idea isn’t so weird, though: In some languages, the two clauses of a comparative correlative use two different words. For example, in Latin the more … the more is phrased as quo magis … eo plus: “by however much more … by that much more”. If I recall correctly, Sanskrit does the same thing, and Brian Joseph (also at the defense) mentioned that that’s how Slavic languages do it.

Of course, it was pointed out that there are also languages like French, where we have the famous Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, which doesn’t have any markers. Literally, it’s just, “It changes more, it’s the same thing more,” without any explicit correlation stated.

An interesting question that came up was what the comparative had to modify. In the the closer I get and the more I care, it modifies the main verb. In the more beer he drinks, it modifies a complement of the verb (beer). In the more people come, it modifies the subject. But what about a sentence like this one?

The longer I’m in this profession, the fewer people’s work I respect.

Here, fewer modifies people’s, which is part of the determiner the fewer people’s, which is part of the direct object the fewer people’s work. Can you do that? Here, let’s try a poll:

After Carl and Craige and Bob Levine were done with their questions, Craige opened the floor for other questions, so I got to ask what I’d been wondering about: Smith’s analysis had it all set up so that a clause like the closer I get to forty can not stand on its own as a complete sentence. It has to combine with another clause. So far so good. That clause is required to be another the+comparative clause. That will produce a well-formed sentence, true, but what about sentences like these?

Some people said, you know, I should die a painful death because I’m worse than the enemy, I’m one of us who’s helping, you know, girls of Muslims go to school. And the more I do this, I am convinced, you know, we can drop bombs, or hand out condoms, or build roads or put in electricity, but without education, nothing’s going to change.

Where’s the second comparative? When I hear sentences like this, I usually attribute them to speaker error: Someone starts off, gets too bogged down in details, and forgets how they need to finish the sentence. But I hear enough of them that maybe I shouldn’t write them off so easily. Smith was prepared for this, and had a list of examples, including one from Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Her conclusions about them?

Well, that’s an area for future research. But hey, at least she didn’t blow off the data!

The final highlight of Smith’s dissertation defense: Her version of Buzzword Bingo. The handout explained: “In case you are here to support me more than to learn about the details of my research, I’ve created this version of Bingo for you to play while you wait for us to finish talking….” Naturally, we couldn’t yell out “Bingo!”; we were on our honor to write down the time we got it. I got a vertical bingo right down the middle with P(heno)-T(ecto) D(ifferentiated) C(ategorial) G(rammar), Pronoun, ELIZABETH (free space), Scope, and The-1. ABDs out there, take note of the future of dissertation defenses!

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