Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Fillers and gaps’ Category

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!

Posted in Comparative correlatives, Semantics, Syntax | 6 Comments »

New Data Points

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2011

Here are a few items I’ve come across in the past several months. If this were my first year writing this blog, each of them would have been immediately worth a whole post. But since I’ve been doing this for more than seven years, I’ve already written about these topics, in some cases numerous times. So now they’ve just been sitting in my drafts pile until I had enough of them scraped together to put in a combined post.

On a Language Log post on a malnegation from Newt Gingrich, commenter Tom Recht went slightly off topic to offer the following:

A colleague, on hearing that a mutual friend had applied for the same fellowship she had applied for, recently said to me: “I hope he doesn’t get it and I don’t get it.”

What she meant was not “I hope that [[he doesn’t get it] and [I don’t get it]]”, but “I hope that [not [he gets it and I don’t get it]]”. She was morphosyntactically negating only the first of the two coordinated clauses even though the negation applied to the entire coordination — grammatically impossible, you might think, but immediately intelligible in context.

A nice summation of exactly the kind of coordination that first grabbed my attention in a set of phenomena that I first called “coordination with half-negation” but now call by the more general term of wide-scoping operators.

Next, here’s something Glen sent me back in March:

Just found the following sentence in a student paper I’m grading:

“George believes that making the [website] template was better than buying [from an outside designer] because the integration costs associated with testing and integrating an external design into our existing system would be too high.”


FLoP, of course, is the initial name “Friends in Low Places” coordination, which I gave to the kind of nonparallel coordinations that I now call right-node wrapping. Not just any nonparallel coordination is an RNW. The last coordinate has to wrap around something that actually belongs to both coordinates. In this case, the complex verb integrate … into our existing system wraps around the direct object an external design. By all rights, that should encapsulate this noun phrase inside the second coordinate, but in fact, it’s also the direct object for the first verb, testing.

My wife and I were discussing the latest news from the hyper-religious Arkansas Duggar family. You know, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who decided they would use no form of birth control, “let God decide” how many children they should have, and give them all names that begin with J, no matter how ridiculous those names became after they used the obvious ones. (Jinger? Does that rhyme with ringer or is it homophonous with ginger? I hope the latter.) God may have been indicating a decision when Michelle recently miscarried their 20th child. Giving me the news, my wife said,

The Duggars lost their 20th child.

I noticed the same ambiguity here that I noticed in sentences like Doug lost his first tooth. If you look just at first tooth or 20th child, you have to figure out what sequence you’re talking about. For Doug’s first tooth, you probably mean “first tooth to erupt in Doug’s mouth.” For 20th child, you probably mean “the 20th child that they conceived.” But in the construction VERB one’s Nth NOUN, the verb overrides the default set of ordered events, and the whole thing means “VERB a NOUN for the Nth time.” So Doug lost his first tooth has the intended meaning of “lost a tooth for the first time” along with the unintended meaning of “lost the first tooth that he cut”. And The Duggars lost their 20th child, in addition to the sad intended meaning of “lose the 20th child that they conceived,” could also have the much sadder, not-intended meaning of “lose a child for the 20th time.”

Lastly, here’s a sentence I heard from someone talking about picky eaters:

What is something similar to raw carrots that you’d be willing to give a shot?

Nice extraposition of the relative clause that you’d be willing to give a shot from the something it modifies, but what really interested me was the fact that in the verb phrase give [something] a shot, it’s the indirect object that got pulled out to be the modified noun: something … that you’d be willing to give a shot. In a recent post, I discussed why Who Brynn gave the cookies (with who as an extracted indirect object) sounded so much worse than Who Brynn gave the cookies to (with who as an extracted object of a preposition). Most commenters agreed that it was, but Glen commented:

Well, let me just register my surprise. None of the *-marked constructions here sound even slightly bad to me. Not that I object to the ‘to’, because it can help clarify things in some cases. But omitting it just isn’t a problem at all for me.

Well, Glen, here’s one that popped right out in spontaneous conversation. Now I’m the one registering surprise!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fillers and gaps, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations), Wide-scoping operators | 13 Comments »

Diagramming Interrogatives

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2011

A couple of months ago, Rentz and Lentz at the Bcomm Teacher Xchange blog were kind enough to include one of my posts in their list of resources for learning how to diagram sentences. However, they express their preference for Reed-Kellogg diagrams over tree diagrams:

This blog post illustrates the differences between the Reed-Kellogg diagram and tree diagram methods for diagramming sentences. I prefer the Reed-Kellogg method. I know linguists prefer tree diagrams for their precision and more nuanced representation of sentence structures, but I’m not a linguist. I just want a visually accessible way for students to look at sentences, and (at least for me) the left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram presents sentence structures more clearly than the top-down reading orientation of the tree diagram.

I’ll respond to their two reasons. First, it’s true that if you’re a linguist, you probably prefer tree diagrams to Reed-Kellogg diagrams. It’s also true that if you’re a cat, you prefer meat to vegetables. But if you’re not a cat, that doesn’t mean you prefer vegetables to meat. Case in point: my son Doug, who is not a cat, yet still likes his pizza with pepperoni and bacon when he can get it, and will pick off any peppers or onions. Likewise, you don’t have to be a linguist to like tree diagrams (if you like diagrams at all). I respect Rentz and Lentz’s preference for Reed-Kellogg diagrams, but dispute their non-linguisthood as a valid reason for the preference.

As for the “left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram”, I’m afraid I don’t understand. One of the advantages of tree diagrams is that they preserve the linear order of an utterance. Reed-Kellogg diagrams use a mixture of left-right and top-down orientations, and if you don’t know the original sentence that is being diagrammed, you can’t always get back to it by reading off a Reed-Kellogg diagram. If you don’t believe me, check out this Reed-Kellogg diagram of the opening sentence from the Declaration of Independence, and then compare it to this tree diagram of the same sentence (you’ll need to use the magnifying-glass icon). Both diagrams are big and unwieldy, but only the tree diagram lets you read back the original sentence in unwavering left-to-right order.

This willingness to undo a sentence’s linear order to get at its structure shows up especially in Reed-Kellogg diagrams of interrogatives. An interrogative like Do you like cats? in a Reed-Kellogg diagram is indistinguishable from the emphatic You do like cats!, because subject-auxiliary inversion (e.g. Do you) is ignored.

Also, wh elements are always left in situ in Reed-Kellogg diagrams. That is, a sentence like What did you see? is diagrammed as if it were the question Did you see what? — or more accurately, as if it were You did see what?, what with the undoing of the subject-auxiliary inversion in Did you. That would be the question you might ask someone if they said to you, “I did see it!” and you didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.

There are even diagrams in which the combination of undoing subject-auxiliary inversion and leaving all wh items in situ collapse even more sentences into one representation. Take the sentence

Brynn will say who stole the cookies.

In a Reed-Kellogg diagram, but it looks like this:

We already know this will be indistinguishable from Will Brynn say who stole the cookies?, but there’s more. This is also the diagram for the interrogative sentence

Who will Brynn say stole the cookies?

In English, the who in these sentences is placed at the front of whichever clause is a question. If the question is about who stole the cookies, the who stays at the front of stole the cookies. If the question is about whom Brynn will accuse, the who goes in front of will Brynn say. But when you diagram it in situ, you don’t know which sentence you’re dealing with, and the semantic difference is more than just whether you’re asking about or stating the same proposition. In a language like Chinese, where all wh items really are in situ, the ambiguity of this diagram would be excusable, because the actual sentence would be ambiguous, too — but we’re diagramming English, not Chinese.

In fact, the above diagram is even the same as the one for …who Brynn will say stole the cookies, but we can cut a little slack here, since this is a subordinate clause, not a complete sentence. A Reed-Kellogg diagram would have to connect situate this clause within a larger one; for example, Fenster knows who Brynn will say stole the cookies.

For comparison, here’s how Brynn will say who stole the cookies and Who will Brynn say stole the cookies? look in tree diagrams (click to embiggen):

It’s worth noting that only the first of these four English sentences can be read off the diagram left-to-right.

A couple of other reasons I prefer tree diagrams can be seen in the diagrams in this post. First, it’s easier to collapse tree diagrams into triangles to hide the details. In the Reed-Kellogg diagram, even though I wasn’t interested in the internal structure of the verb phrase stole the cookies, I had to diagram it out, right down to hanging the the underneath cookies. In the tree diagram, I just took it down to the level of VP and left that phrase in a triangle of its own. Second, tree diagrams let you diagram a phrase without insisting that you diagram the entire sentence it came from. If I wanted to diagram just the structure of the predicate stole the cookies, I could do that easily with a tree diagram, whereas a Reed-Kellogg diagram would look incomplete with a predicate on one side of the vertical bar and no subject on the other side.

I’m not saying that tree diagrams always have it over Reed-Kellogg ones. For some sentences, neither kind has an advantage, and for some, Reed-Kellogg might even have an advantage. For example, Reed-Kellogg diagrams do a better job than tree diagrams of showing the unity of phrasal verbs such as throw away when they wrap around a direct object. For many sentences, though, especially the kind that syntacticians think about and traditional grammarians tend to overlook, tree diagrams are the way to go.

Posted in Diagramming, Fillers and gaps, Inversion | 18 Comments »

Words to Sound Smart by Using

Posted by Neal on November 7, 2011

Grammar Girl has yet another book coming out this week, in what looks like it’s becoming a franchise: the 101 Words series. Back in August, I gave away a copy of 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know and 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again, and in the next few days I’ll be running a contest to win a free copy of the latest one, 101 Words to Sound Smart. More on that in a subsequent post. Today, I’m interested in the syntax of that title.

Some infinitival phrases that modify nouns are like relative clauses, because they have to have a “gap” that the noun is understood to fill. Indeed, they’re sometimes called infinitival relative clauses. For example, there’s this title of a book full of blank pages and prompts for artistic inspiration: 642 Things to Draw. The transitive verb draw is missing a direct object, and things fills this gap. For an infinitival relative clause with a subject gap, how about Tales to Give You Goosebumps? The verb phrase give you goosebumps doesn’t have a subject, but it’s understood that the tales will handle the task of giving you goosebumps. The gap could even be the object of a preposition, as in Stories to Curl Up With (a title I made up), in which the stories are the things with which someone could curl up.

But in 101 Words to Sound Smart, there is no gap. There’s no gap in the verb phrase sound smart. There’s no subject gap, either, unless the meaning is that the words themselves sound smart. I suppose that could be one way to parse the title, using smart in its extended sense of things that smart people use (the same way stupid can refer to things that only stupid people would like, and similar cases). But I think that if that’s what Grammar Girl meant, she would have called it 101 Words That Sound Smart, making it more of a certainty. The infinitival relative conveys more of a sense of potentiality: things that you could draw, tales that could give you goosebumps.

The meaning that I’m pretty sure the title is intended to convey is that these are words that you can use in order to sound smart. In other words, to sound smart is a purpose infinitival. These are much more common as modifiers of verbs than as modifiers of nouns. In fact, when I first heard this book title, I would have said that purpose infinitivals couldn’t modify nouns. I would have said that words to sound smart was ungrammatical, and that the only ways to get at that meaning of purpose would be to use an infinitival relative clause. One way would be with an object gap, as in 101 Words to Sound Smart by Using. That sounds really awkward, though; maybe even ungrammatical in its own right (because of so-called relative clause islands). So a better option would be with a subject gap: 101 Words to Make You Sound Smart.

However, a few days after I encountered words to sound smart, I was looking at the cover of Family Tree magazine (my Aunt Jane is really into genealogy and got me a subscription), and saw the teaser for one of the articles: websites to find your ancestors. You could take this to mean websites that will find your ancestors for you, but it’s actually talking about websites that will help you find your ancestors. In other words, it’s another purpose infinitival modifying a noun.

As I was looking over this post, I noticed the phrase contest to win a free copy, with a purpose infinitival following the noun contest, and it sounds completely normal to me. My gut feeling is that the infinitival is a complement to the noun, and not a modifier, but I haven’t thought about it enough to be certain.

Anyway, nouns modified by purpose infinitivals, are hard to search for in corpora, because you can’t conveniently look for entire infinitival phrases that contain no gaps. For that reason, I don’t know how common this kind of construction is; all I know is that it’s unusual to my ear, but that it must not be too strange for others. How do they sound to you? Reactions and additional examples are welcome in the comments.

Posted in Books, Relative clauses | 24 Comments »

Whose Camera…?

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2011

As I was saying in the last post, last weekend Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s spring campout. This year it was at Flint Ridge State Memorial, a place I’d never heard about before now, but where I learned not only that flint was a sedimentary rock (I’d have guessed metamorphic off the top of my head), but also that the current thinking is that it was formed from crushed and compressed sponges. When we took the tour of the visitor center, the guide mentioned that any flint found at the site had to stay there, and asked why. Adam volunteered that eventually there would be no flint left.

“Right,” the guide said. “If–“

But Adam wasn’t done yet. “And then they’d just have to call it ‘Ridge’.”

At one point during the weekend, a couple other parents and I were sitting in the shade on a picnic table while our scouts practiced making a fire in the 90-degree weather. Fred, the Cubmaster, came over to take a seat, too, but noticed my camera lying on the table. He asked me, “Is this your camera?” I said yes. Moving it aside, he said, “I didn’t want to sit on it.”

Well, that was nice of him. He didn’t want to sit on my camera. But what was the connection between his hesitation to sit on it and the fact that it was mine? I wondered silently if he would he have sat on it if it had been someone else’s camera. More specifically, I thought the words

*Whose camera would you have sat on it if it was __?

I didn’t say it out loud, though, because the syntax was so bad. The meaning was sensible, but it’s difficult or sometimes impossible to make this kind of question in English. This unspoken sentence is an example of something called an island violation. If you consider the sentence to be a piece of land, the wh word or phrase at the beginning of an interrogative or relative clause is sometimes thought of as having been “moved” from its more usual location to the front of the sentence. For example, in Whose camera would you have sat on __?, the wh phrase whose camera has been “moved” from its position as the object of on to the front of the sentence. But there are some constructions that are like islands, surrounded by water that a wh phrase can’t move over in order to get to the front of the sentence. The moved phrase is also sometimes called the filler, and the place it moved from is called the gap.

The island violation in my sentence was the “adjunct island violation”. Adjunct refers to a phrase that modifies another something; in this case, the adverbial clause if it was (whose camera) modifies the clause would you have sat on it. The adverbial clause (i.e. the adjunct) is an island that doesn’t allow whose camera to escape and go to the front of the sentence.

As for why islands exist, linguists still argue. For this one, my impression is that this sentence crashes because you start out parsing it as Whose camera would you have sat on, assuming that whose camera fills in a gap after on, but then comes an it, and you have to look farther and deeper for the gap that whose camera is to fill. But other times, islands do allow things to escape; for example, there’s the subtype of adjunct island called the relative clause island that I discuss in this post.

Trying to think of a workaround phrasing for my sentence, I came up with

Which person X is such that if the camera had belonged to X, you would have sat on it?

Yeah, that works, especially the person X is such that part!

One other highlight from the campout: Adam got his first taste of Spam. He liked it.

Posted in Adam, Fillers and gaps, You're so literal! | 18 Comments »

What I Want

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2011

Back in March, I blogged about an ambiguity in a line in a Garth Brooks song: What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. One reading was the “specificational” reading, which I paraphrased like this:

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart.

The other was the “predicational” reading:

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart.

Commenters Glen and ran had some questions about possible other readings, and I responded in a comment:

It occurred to me that since we’re talking about two ways of parsing two different things (the be, the wh clause), we should be able to construct four kinds of sentences. I’m going to lay these out more clearly in my next post, and situate the two (or more?) readings of this sentence in that framework.

Several posts later, this is that “next post”. I’ll start with the two meanings of be. Predicational be takes its subject and declares it to be in some set of things. For example, in Osama bin Laden is dead, the is declares Osama bin Laden to be in the set of things that are dead. The be in progressive tenses is a kind of predicational be. For example, in Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan, the was declares Osama bin Laden to have been in the set of things that live in Pakistan.

Specificational be, on the other hand, takes its subject and equates it with its complement. For example, in Osama bin Laden was the leader of Al-Qaeda, the was equates two things: Osama bin Laden, and the leader of Al Qaeda (at a time in the past, of course). One property of specificational be is that it lets you reverse its subject and complement. Thus, you can also say The leader of Al-Qaeda was Osama bin Laden. You can’t typically do this with predicational be: Note the badness of ?Dead is Osama bin Laden, barring some kind of poetic register.

Now I’ll take up the two kinds of wh clauses. A wh clause such as what I want could be an indirect question, as in He’s asking what I want. In this sentence, what I want has whatever meaning you give to questions. (Many semanticists take it to be the set of propositions that could answer that question: {“I want money”, “I want a new car”, “I want another Everlasting Gobstopper”,…}) You could paraphrase this sentence as He’s asking the question of what I want.

The wh clause could also be a fused relative, as in They’re out of what I want. In this case, what I want refers to a particular thing, such as Everlasting Gobstoppers. You could paraphrase this sentence as They’re out of the thing that I want.

So with the ambiguity between predicational and specificational be, plus the ambiguity between indirect questions and fused relatives, we should be able to get four kinds of meaning for a sentence with a wh clause for a subject and be for a verb.

  1. Predicational be, indirect question for subject

    An example of this combination would be:

    What I want isn’t relevant to the discussion.

    In this sentence, we know that what I want is an indirect question because you can paraphrase it as The question of what I want isn’t relevant….. Also, you can’t (at least, not very easily) paraphrase it as *The thing that I want isn’t relevant to the discussion. This sentence is using predicational be: It states that (the question of) what I want is in the set of things that are not relevant. Before I move on to the next combination, I’ll modify the sentence to have predicational be in a progressive tense:

    (The question of) what we should do is bothering me.

    Note the non-reversibility of subjects and complements here: ?Not relevant to the discussion is what I want, ?Bothering me is (the question of) what we should do.

    This combination of predicational be and an indirect question subject corresponds to a reading I didn’t think of for What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. It’s the one suggested by my brother Glen: that the topic (or question) of what she’s doing now is a painful one.

  2. Predicational be, fused relative for subject

    I’ll take the first example sentence, and replace the adjective phrase relevant to the discussion with something that is more appropriate for a concrete entity:

    What I want is expensive.

    Now what I want is a fused relative. You can replace it with The thing that I want, but not with The question of what I want. We have predicational is placing the thing that I want in the set of things that are expensive. And now for this combination with predicational be in a progressive tense:

    What I eat is clogging my arteries.

    Final evidence that this is predicational be is the non-reversibility of the subjects and complements: ?Expensive is what I want, ?Clogging my arteries is what I eat.

    This combination of predicational be and a fused relative subject was what I called the predicational meaning of What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart.

  3. Specificational be, indirect question subject

    For this combination, I’m going to use two indirect questions, one of them a where question, just to highlight that these wh clauses are not referring to individual entities.

    {What you want / Where we should go} is the question before us.

    We can tell that the wh clauses are indirect questions because we can replace them with The question of {what you want / where we should go}, and we cannot replace them with the thing that you want or *the thing that we should go (which is not even syntactically well-formed). Specificational is equates these questions with the question before us. Note the reversibility this time: The question before us is {what you want / where we should go}.

    This combination of specificational be and an indirect question doesn’t correspond to any of the meanings proposed for What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart. It would mean something like, “The question of what she’s now doing consists of the activity of tearing me apart,” which makes no sense. It was so hard for me to construct that meaning just now that it’s no wonder I didn’t identify it back then.

  4. Specificational be, fused relative subject

    The combination of specificational be and a fused relative subject has, through other channels, acquired its own special name in the field of syntax: pseudo-cleft. An example:

    What I want is money.

    Because What I want is a fused relative, we can replace it with The thing that I want; we cannot replace it with The question of what I want, at least not sensibly. We can see that the is is specificational, as it identifies the thing I want as money. Note also the reversibility: Money is what I want.

    This last combination corresponds to what I called the specificational meaning of What she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart.

So there they are, all four possible interpretations of a wh clause subject with be. It is so darn tricky to sort out all these meanings that I’m almost tempted to go Whorfian, and say that because of this ambiguity our English syntax has set up for us, it’s harder for us to talk about these distinctions. Even when you set about disambiguating them, making an unambiguous paraphrase is pretty tough. I’d be interested in hearing from speakers of languages in which predicational and specificational be are different words, and/or indirect questions and fused relatives have different syntax. Do you have a hard time keeping these meanings straight?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Lexical semantics | 6 Comments »

What She’s Doin’ Now Is Tearin’ Me Apart

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2011

Back in January I wrote about an unusual sentence with a fused relative clause (aka a free relative). At the time, I wrote, “This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudo-cleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.”

Looks like I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so here we go. The song is “What She’s Doing Now,” performed by Garth Brooks on his 1990 album No Fences. The title shows up in the lyrics, when Brooks sings that the season of the year

…makes me wonder
What she’s doin’ now.

Nothing remarkable so far. What she’s doing now is the indirect-question form of What is she doing now?, serving as the complement of the verb wonder. But in the chorus, Brooks sings

… what she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart
Fillin’ up my mind and emptyin’ my heart

Now we’ve got ourselves an ambiguity, and it’s partly attributable to the ambiguity of the -ing form of any verb. Let’s take the phrase blogging about linguistics in two sentences:

My hobby is blogging about linguistics.
I’m blogging about linguistics right now.

In the first sentence, blogging about linguistics is a noun phrase (more specifically, a gerund phrase), and is is identifying it as my hobby. In the second sentence, blogging about linguistics is a participial phrase; it hooks up with is to form a verb phrase that talks about someone blogging.

Now let’s go back to the sentence in the chorus, and take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as gerunds. In that case, the meaning is basically

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the specificational meaning. (Free relatives in this kind of specificational construction are also known as pseudo-clefts.) On the other hand, if we take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as participles, then what we have after the is is a great big participial phrase, which joins with the is to form a verb phrase. The meaning in this case would be

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the predicational meaning. This is the easier reading to get, in my opinion.

The other thing that makes this specificational/predicational ambiguity possible is the fact that both people and abstract things are capable of tearin’ one apart, fillin’ up one’s mind, and emptyin’ one’s heart. If we replace those verbs with something that only a human (or at least something animate) can do, then we only get the specificational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is drinkin’, smokin’, and partyin’ all night. (X = the act of d., s., and p.a.n.)

If we replace it with something that doesn’t make sense with a human subject, we get only the predicational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is disturbing and possibly illegal. (Whatever X is, it is d. and p.i.)

So how about that, eh? I told you you’d love this ambiguity! Was I right, or was I right? (This is pretty much the same ambiguity, by the way, that I discussed in 2006 for What we waste is a disgrace.)

However, now that I look back on the lyrics, I wonder if the chorus was actually intentionally ambiguous. I’ve always assumed it was, and gotten a linguistic thrill out of hearing it, the same as I get with If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?, but I don’t really see anything in the song as a whole anymore that would suggest the writers wanted you to get both meanings. What do you think?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Gerunds and participles, Music | 7 Comments »

Who Told Me Was My Dad

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2011

Driving home from Doug and Adam’s piano lessons last night, I heard a fluffy piece on NPR about Elizabeth Hughes, an eight-year-old girl who was singing the national anthem at a hockey game (well, before the game, actually), when her mike cut out, and the entire crowd picked up from where her sound went out. Well, there were probably some people in there who were just mouthing it, but enough sang to bring the song to a rousing finish. Mee-chele Norris was interviewing Hughes, and asked her how she happened to be picked to sing at the event. Hughes answered:

Who told me about this was my Dad.

Wow! A fused relative with who! A fused relative construction is something that looks like an interrogative (in this case, who told me), but acts like a noun phrase (in this case, by serving as the subject of was my dad). Huddleston and Pullum call this kind of structure a fused relative in CGEL because, to use this example to illustrate, you can think of it as equivalent to a noun modified by a relative clause: the person who told me about this. But in what the girl actually said, the who standing in for the whole string the person who. We get fused relatives all the time with what; for example, That’s what I want, which you could defuse (as it were) into That’s the thing that I want. (This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudocleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.) Shoot, I even used a fused relative headed by what myself a couple of sentences ago. Did you see it?

Anyway, back to fused relatives with who. I’ll yield the floor to Geoff Pullum, who wrote about them on Language Log in December 2005 after hearing a barista ask, “Can I help who’s next?”:

In Rockport, Massachusetts, I observed another grammatical construction that might well have been thought extinct for many decades, but like the ivory-billed woodpecker and the supplementary relative that-clause, it seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment. I was waiting in line in a small coffee shop and I heard a young woman behind the counter call for the next customer by saying “Can I help who’s next?”. This wasn’t my first observation; I hear the phrase in Santa Cruz, California, too (and since first posting this I have heard that it is familiar elsewhere, from ice cream scoopers in Cleveland, Ohio, to bank tellers in Gainesville, Florida). So it’s not local; it’s spread across the entire breadth of the continent. What’s interesting about it is that it’s a fused relative construction with human denotation, headed by the relative pronoun lexeme who. And that is a possibility that has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years.

In general, fused relatives with who just aren’t used in contemporary English. In Shakespeare’s time it was commonplace (recall Iago’s remark in Othello: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands). It survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.

Except in this peculiar use in coffee shops and the like, because in Can I help who’s next? we have a fused relative construction: it’s the object of help.

Like Pullum, I had noted the atypicality of Can I help who’s next?, and figured it was just an exceptional piece of syntax that wasn’t part of some bigger pattern. But now, from an eight-year-old girl, we have another fused relative headed by who, in a completely different context, used as a subject instead of a verb, and not part of some set, formulaic expression. Could this kind of fused relative be making a comeback, or was the phrasing unintentional? You can hear Elizabeth Hughes and decide for yourself. The story is also featured on the NPR blog, and if you listen to the first audio clip there, you’ll hear the phrase at about 1:19.

I was still thinking about this fused relative as we pulled into the garage, and Norris was asking Hughes if, since she never got to (audibly) finish her solo at the hockey game, she’d like to do it right now on the radio. I quickly turned off the ignition and set the parking brake, and the boys and I got right out of the car, just in time not to hear Hughes say, “No, that’s OK, I’m cool.”

Posted in Diachronic, Fused relatives | 6 Comments »

More Prepositional Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on November 9, 2010

“Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

I stayed on the line, cleaning up the kitchen one-handed while I waited. By the time I was speaking to a real person, I had listened long enough to have heard the message at least five more times:

Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.

It was really starting to get to me … holding the phone to my ear with one hand, clearing the table and loading the dishwasher with the other, and hearing again and again, “the order it was received.” You’re missing the final in!, I kept thinking. You don’t say

*The calls were received this order.

You say

The calls were received in this order.

So when you lift out order to turn this clause into a relative clause, you don’t just forget about the in. Jonathon at Arrant Pedantry knows what I’m talking about. He and I are flexible here; you have more than one option for what to do with the in. You can leave it stranded at the end, the same way as you’d leave it at the end of the house I grew up in. Or you can take the in along with order, and put them both at the front of the relative clause. Summing up the choices:

Your call will be answered in the order it was received in.
Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.

Personally, even though I’m comfortable saying (and writing) in the house I grew up in, I find the stranded-preposition option kind of awkward here. I prefer the order in which it was received.

They’ve talked about this kind of missing preposition at Language Log here and here, calling it “prepositional cannibalism”, a term borrowed from Ernest Gowers, who wrote about “One of a pair of words swallow[ing] the other.” In this case, we’ve got a pair of ins, one of them heading a prepositional phrase modifying be answered, and the other modifying were received. Only one survives.

Here are a couple of other examples of prepositional cannibalism that I’ve heard at one time or another:

You have to pull out at the same angle you went in [at].
I want to sell it for a higher price than I bought it [for].

I wondered if this kind of preposition dropping happened when the prepositions weren’t identical. I don’t think it can:

*Give it back to the person you got it [from].
*Put it into the same box you got it [out of].
*Make eye contact with the person you’re talking [to].

Arnold Zwicky has some examples of a dropped preposition with no other prepositions at all in the sentence, including these:

… take a variable that we already know the behavior [of].
… and other important things that we hope to get them the money [for].

He calls the more general phenomenon preposition absorption, and the observation he makes is that the omitted preposition has to be recoverable from the context in one way or another. In the case of cannibalism, it’s the existence of an identical preposition that provides the information; in Zwicky’s examples, it’s the wider context. However, in my ungrammatical examples, I think the context is sufficient to allow recovery of the missing prepositions, but the sentences are still no good. My impression is that, regardless of what’s going on in Zwicky’s examples, preposition cannibalism occurs among speakers who want to avoid truly ungrammatical phrases like world in which we live in, and in so doing accidentally block some legitimately repeated prepositions.

Posted in Ellipsis, Fillers and gaps | 18 Comments »

Wh-Pronoun, Why You Wanna Go Down in the Clause Below?

Posted by Neal on July 21, 2010

When I was doing research for my Visual Thesaurus column on Im(m)a a couple of months ago, I made a point of listening to more of the Top 40 radio station in town than I had done in years. (Listening less to current music is what happens when you get an iPod.) One of the songs I heard that was on the Top 10 at the time was Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister”, and I liked it well enough that I downloaded a copy. I like the ukulele, the percussion, and the “hey, hey” vocal riffs, but as I listen to it more, I also admire the complex rhyme scheme. You have to examine not one but two verses to get the full picture, so here are the first two:

Your lipstick stains
on the front lobe of my left side brains
I knew I wouldn’t forget you
so I went and let you
blow my mind.

Your sweet moonbeam
the smell of you in every single dream I dream
I knew when we collided
you’re the one I have decided
who’s one of my kind.

That’s AABBC DDEEC. Furthermore, the AA and DD rhymes are monosyllabic (stains, brains; beam, dream), while the BB and EE ones are disyllabic ((for)get you, let you; (col)lided, (de)cided), and that pattern continues in the other verses.

However, I also noticed some strange syntax in the lyrics; specifically, the line you’re the one I have decided who’s one of my kind. What’s that who doing where it is? Shouldn’t it be

You’re the one who I’ve decided is one of my kind.

Usuallly, decide is followed by a clause, which may or may not be introduced by the complementizer that. For example, we might have

I’ve decided (that) she’s one of my kind.

Things get complicated, though, when we lift out the she and turn what remains of the clause into a relative clause. Without the she, what we have is I’ve decided (that) ___ is one of my kind. Actually, what you get is I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind, without the option of using a that anymore. In English, for the most part you can’t have complementizer that right before a gap. Putting the relative pronoun who in front of this, we get

who I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

Or, instead of a who, you could introduce the relative clause with a that or no relativizer at all:

who/that/0 I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

Now the whole thing can modify a noun, such as one:

the one who/that/0 I’ve decided ___ is one of my kind

So how in the world did Pat Monahan, Amund Bjørklund and Espen Lind come up with the one I have decided who‘s one of my kind?

In fact, this reminded me of a pattern of wh-question formation that we don’t have in English, called partial wh-movement. To understand what partial wh-movement is, it’s useful to compare it to the two other kinds of wh-question formation. One is called wh-movement or wh-fronting, and is what we have in English. If we’re asking, let’s say, a where question, we put the where at the front of the sentence, no matter how deeply the clause it actually came from is buried in there, as these examples show:


  1. Where did they meet ___?
  2. Where do you think they met ___?
  3. Where should we say you think they met ___?

Another kind of wh-question formation is wh in-situ. Using this method, the where stays in its home clause, no matter how deeply it’s buried in the overall sentence. In English, this kind of question can only be used to express surprise, or to prompt a speaker to repeat some information you didn’t catch. In other languages, though, such as Chinese, this is the normal method of forming questions.

Wh in-situ

  1. They met where?
  2. You think they met where?
  3. We should say you think they met where?

In partial wh-movement, the where would move to the front of a clause, but only to the front of its home clause. No matter how deeply that clause is buried, the where moves to its beginning, then stops. However, I guess to serve as a kind of question marker, at the front of the whole sentence is a general wh-word, typically the one corresponding to what in English. It’s sometimes called an expletive wh, or a scope-marking wh. If partial wh-movement existed in English, the example sentences might look like these:

Partial wh-movement

  1. Where did they meet ___? [no difference from ordinary wh-movement in this case]
  2. *What do you think where they met ___?
  3. *What should we say what you think where they met ___?

This is getting pretty close to the one I have decided who’s one of my kind, but there’s one significant difference: We don’t have an expletive wh like what at the beginning of the relative clause. If this were partial wh-movement, and partial wh-movement were even grammatical in English, we’d expect something like

the one what I’ve decided who‘s one of my kind.

I thought I had an answer when I Googled Amund Bjørklund and Espen Lind and found out they were Norwegian. Aha! One language that is well-known for having partial wh-movement is German, and now we have two speakers of another Germanic language coming up with this strange syntax reminiscent of German’s partial wh-movement! I expected to find that Norwegian had partial wh-movement too, and furthermore didn’t even bother with a scope-marking, expletive wh in its version. The funny English syntax would be bleed-through from the songwriters’ first language.

But as it turns out, Norwegian doesn’t have partial wh-movement, so now all I can conclude is,

Wh pronoun, why you wanna go down in the clause below where you’re s’posed to go, the way you’ve moved ain’t fair you know.

Posted in Fillers and gaps, Music | 11 Comments »