Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Relative clauses’ Category

Relative Clauses, Complex Passives, and Rainbow Farts

Posted by Neal on August 9, 2016

I was reading an article in one of the issues of New Scientist magazine that that tend to accumulate around here, and came across this sentence:

The benefits of unsaturated fats, traditionally seen as good for the heart, may vary due to their omega-3 content, which is thought could have anti-inflammatory effects.

It seemed to me there was a word missing. In my ESL composition classes, we sometimes talk about “complex passives” as a means of reporting some claim or discovery when it’s not important who made the claim or discovery. For example, suppose we’re starting with the following claim:

  1. Unicorns fart rainbows.
Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Now let’s suppose we’re not prepared to support this claim, so we want to say it’s someone else who believes it:

  1. Some people think that unicorns fart rainbows.

Next, let’s say you still want to put more focus on the claim than on the unnamed people who believe it. Two rather unusual versions of the passive voice, known as complex passives, will let you do this. One of them makes use of a dummy it, and leaves the entire clause unicorns poop rainbows unchanged:

  1. It is thought that unicorns fart rainbows.

The other kind of complex passive allows you to put the focus more specifically on unicorns, by turning the subject of the embedded clause (unicorns) into the subject of the passive reporting verb (are thought–note the change from is to are to agree with unicorns), and turning the remainder of that embedded clause into an infinitive phrase (to poop rainbows), like so:

  1. Unicorns are thought to fart rainbows.

Now let’s suppose that we want to combine that last sentence with this next one, by means of a relative clause:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns.

One way of doing it is to take item #4 and use it as the basis for your relative clause. I’ve shown this by color-coding the word unicorns and the place where this word has been removed from the embedded clause, which I’ve labeled “GAP”:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which GAP are thought to fart rainbows.

A somewhat more awkward way of doing it is to use item #3, with the dummy it, and use that as your basis:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which it is thought GAP fart rainbows.

So depending on which kind of complex passive you go with, your relative clause will have either (1) an infinitive after your reporting verb, or (2) a dummy it, and then a finite verb phrase after your reporting verb. The sentence from New Scientist stuck out because it has a finite verb phrase (could have anti-inflammatory effects), but no dummy it!

Thanks to New Scientist, I’ve become aware of several idioms and unusual syntax in British English, such as down to to mean “attributable to,” the usage of so to conjoin verb phrases (as opposed to entire clauses), and it’s early days for X to mean “X is a field or endeavor in its infancy.” So maybe this was thought could phrasing was a British English thing. However, after searching the NS website for strings such as “are thought could” and “is thought might”, the only example I found was one that used both a dummy it and a finite verb:

…immediately after being given hormone treatment to harvest their eggs – which it is thought could impair the process of implantation.

It occurred to me that it might be no accident that the finite verb in this unusual sentence was a modal verb. After all, if the claim they’re talking about is something like this–

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

–and you go for the complex passive that allows you to put unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content at the front of the sentence, then you need to make could into an infinitive, but English modal verbs don’t have infinitives. So what do you do? Maybe you just leave the verb as it is, and end up with:

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

Then, when you turn that into a relative clause, you get out item #1. With that hypothesis, I predicted I would not find similar examples with ordinary (aka “lexical”) verbs if I went searching through some corpora. And mostly, I didn’t. Here’s what I found from the BYU British National Corpus:

  • …if he is to join the powerful Irish representation which is anticipated will cross the Atlantic to take on the Americans…
  • Thus a rise in monetary growth which is anticipated will have no effect on the level of unemployment.
  • Duty (charged at one per cent) on properties costing less that 250,000, which is hoped will kick-start the housing market.

Here’s what I found in BYU’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

  • And with a slightly increased budget of $50 million–much of which is assumed will go to leads asking for heftier paydays, location shoots in Italy, and ramped-up F/X–Summit will have to scrimp somewhere.

And here’s what I found in their NOW corpus:

  • Reportedly, both drinks can often be high in polyphenol, a nutrient which is believed could give chocolate its beneficial effects on health.
  • …leading to the development of a dilation zone which is believed could hold significant mineral potential.
  • Beijing claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed could sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
  • His sin is his godson relationship with Obasanjo which is believed could be used against the incumbent president in 2015 if Andy becomes governor.
  • …including the on-going electronic voters registration which is believed could deny millions…

So yay, my hypothesis stood up … until I found this example in BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English (COHA):

  • The following is nearly all we could glean, which was thought had reference to the subject under consideration (1841)

Fluke? Did someone just forget to put in that short, meaningless it? Or is it possible that this construction got started with modal verbs as a workaround, and then got extended to lexical verbs (and it’s just by chance that the earliest example I found involves a lexical verb)?

I don’t know. How do these examples sound to you? Have you heard or read others? Let’s have them!

Posted in Passive voice, Relative clauses, Syntax | 4 Comments »

He Conquers Who Endures

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2014

I saw this on the back of a T-shirt when I was at the grocery store:

He conquers who endures.

Too bad for those people who endure. Even after all their endurance, they get conquered in the end. He, whoever “he” is, is a patient conquerer.

However, I suspect the wearer of the T-shirt probably didn’t realize that this was the meaning it was conveying. He probably thought it meant something like “The person who endures conquers,” or “He who endures conquers.” (Or to put it more gender-neutrally, “They who endure conquer.”) But that would mean that two unusual things were going on in this sentence. Neither of them is unprecedented, but both of them happening in one short sentence is noteworthy.

First, the clause who endures would have to be a relative clause modifying he. This doesn’t happen so much in present-day English. The best-known example in recent years is probably the epithet He Who Must Not Be Named for Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels. And even here, speakers didn’t realize they could change the He to Him when the name was a direct object, as observed by Q. Pheevr here.

Second, this relative clause who endures is separated from he. Now sometimes relative clauses do get separated from their head nouns: a book was published that would be read for centuries by countless generations; a woman appeared who was also carrying her head in her hands; What type of workers were there who participated in building the Pyramids. However, this usually happens when the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up. He who endures is just three words.

With my interpretation, though, there’s only one unusual thing going on: who endures isn’t modifying a noun at all, but is acting like a noun phrase all by itself. This is somewhat unusual, but not terribly so. It’s unusual because this kind of clause (known as a fused relative), more typically refers to things than to people. In other words, although sentences like That’s what I want and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may concern.

Overall, then, my parse is the better choice syntactically. After a bit of internet-searching, though, I found that this is a translation of a Latin quotation from an ancient Roman satirist named Persius, although the opinion seems to be that he wasn’t being satirical when he wrote this:

Vincit qui patitur.

People who explain this quotation talk about the need for persistence in order to achieve victory, which definitely sounds more like the “They who endure conquer” interpretation. OK, so maybe it’s possible that I chose the incorrect interpretation for that guy’s T-shirt. But now I can write about how Latin is more precise than English, and you pick up this ambiguity in translation! Except that the same ambiguity exists in the Latin phrasing. Here’s how…

Vincit means “conquers”. Like its English translation, it can be transitive (as in Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all”) or intransitive (as in In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign you will conquer”), so you have to use the context to tell whether a nearby noun phrase is a subject or direct object. Usually in Latin, case endings do this, as illustrated below:

Vincit rex. “The king conquers.”
Vincit regem. “He/she conquers the king.”

Qui patitur means “who suffers (or endures)”, and it’s acting as a fused relative, just like its translation in English. Even in Latin, though, we can’t tell if that fused relative is a subject or an object. It’s the same problem that confuses English speakers about whoever and whomever. So actually, what we have here is a translation that is faithful even in preserving the ambiguity of the original!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns, Relative clauses | 8 Comments »

Blue Christmas Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2013

Looking through the community newspaper, I saw an announcement of the various Christmas-related services that a local church was having. One of them caught my eye:

A tradition from Canada?

I liked the creative use of the song title “Blue Christmas” to name a service for, I assumed, people grieving for departed loved ones or maybe with serious health problems. Pretty clever name, I thought, for a service that I hadn’t heard of before but which sounded like it filled a need. Then I looked across to the facing page of the newspaper, saw another listing of Christmas services from another church, and among the services, saw listed another Blue Christmas service. So apparently this wasn’t an original naming, but a more widespread thing. On the American Dialect Society email list, Dan Goncharoff found two attestations from 1998, both from Canada, and both describing it as a service “for those grieving and in pain at Christmas.” If you’ve heard of Blue Christmas services earlier than that, let me know in the comments.

However, that’s not what I really wanted to comment on. I was more interested in the description in the newspaper:

for those whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

It’s another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are people such that

Christmas is a difficult time for them to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Turning that into a relative clause, we would expect

those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Putting it all together, we should have

for those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

But the writer, I suspect, second-guessed themself and figured there must be something wrong with the lineup of for those for. In the earlier post that I linked to, I noted that the two prepositions had to be the same, but actually, that might not be true. In the widely mangled proverb

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

the of at the beginning is often lopped off. Why the of instead of the to? I don’t know, but I notice that in these two examples, the preposition that survives is the one that points to the beneficiary role: the person who is given much, the person the service is intended for.

They seem to have left off an S here

On an unrelated note, for a few hours after I read the announcement, I had “Blue Christmas” running through my head, and not just any version, but the version from Elvis’s Christmas Album, including the wah-wah-wah-waah ostinato that was drilled into my head through Dad’s numerous playings of the album over the years. What’s the linguistic connection? Also on that album is “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” which I first heard at age 4, when Dad had just bought the album and was playing it for us. “Listen, Neal-o, he wants Santa to bring his baby back,” he told me. At that age, I knew nothing of the lexical ambiguity of baby; I just wondered why jolly old Santa had taken away this man’s child.

Posted in Christmas songs, Christmas-related, Relative clauses | 1 Comment »

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 »

Hatless Syntax

Posted by Neal on February 10, 2007

I checked the iTunes store again, as I do every month or so, and this time they were there! Apple must have finally managed to cut a deal and get them on board. So at last, I was able to download both hits from, you guessed it, Men Without Hats.

Now that I’ve played them a few times, two thing have happened. One is that the hook from “Pop Goes the World” has begun to play in a repeating loop in my head, and will probably have to be purged by an application of “The Preamble” or “Can’t Behave”. The other is that I have noticed anew some unusual syntax from “The Safety Dance”. No, I’m not going to talk about the ambiguity of You can leave your friends behind, funny though it is. I’m referring to this line:

We can go where we want to,
A place where they will never find.

Nice example of an adverbial fused relative in the first line: The phrase where we want to [go] looks like an adverbial relative clause, suitable for modifying a noun, as in the park where we want to go. Semantically, however, it acts like a prepositional phrase, something like “to the place where we want to go”. But even that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. What gets to me is the second line, A place where they will never find. A place where they will never find? Never find what? Us? Then say it: a place where they will never find us!

Oh, but wait. That would be too many syllables, and it wouldn’t rhyme with friends behind. OK, then why not replace where with that, for a place that they will never find? You’d change the meaning a little bit, but not too much: It would be the place itself, not the people who go to it, that they would never find. But a place where they will never find just doesn’t work.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Fused relatives, Music, Relative clauses | 3 Comments »