Extraposition

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P.S. cited this sentence (from Vrinda Agarwal,  "Let’s run the world, girls", Daily Californian 4/26/2014):

It matters that we have men and women representing women, especially because we still have politicians such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who referred to the recent debate over equal pay for women as “nonsense,” and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who said he would not support making lawsuits easier on pay for women.

Puzzled, P.S. wondered whether the wording "… making lawsuits easier on pay for women" might be the result of blind application of some grammatical prejudice:

To me, it seems that the more natural construction of the emphasized clause would be "making lawsuits on pay for women easier", and the construction in the article is a result of following (perhaps) some automated grammar advice on keeping adjectives and noun together.  But then, I am not really a native speaker, so maybe this is just a perfectly natural construction I have never seen before.

The logical structure is indeed something like this, with the prepositional phrase "on pay for women" post-modifying "lawsuits":

But it's a normal part of English syntax to allow such post-modifiers to be extraposed to the end of the clause, past  other verb-phrase elements such as "easier". This creates a non-local modification relationship, where the (string-wise) syntax is out of joint with the semantics  in a way that is less common in English than it is in morphologically richer languages like Latin or Czech or Finnish.

The results can be confusing, especially if the intervening material itself could be in construction with the extraposed phrase. I discussed a (similar but much more confusing) case  a few years ago ("Articles currently living in the Hamilton area", 12/11/2011), and quoted Peter Fries ("Post nominal modifiers in the English noun phrase", in Peter Collins and David Lee, Eds., The clause in English, 1999):

Extraposition of post-nominal modifiers of noun phrases is in general rare [...] In general an element can be extraposed to the end of its sentence only when the extraposed element is sufficiently important to the purposes of the text and the text segment in which it occurs to warrant the prominence it receives as a result of being postponed to the end.

I'd add that it helps when the intervening material is part of a common collocation. Thus the pattern

A [ B C ] D ↔ A B D C

works better if A … D is something like "make X easier" — or "make X happy" or "lend X money" or "put X in jail". There are plenty of examples when the extraposed phrase is a relative clause:

A successful building should make people happy who live and work there.

Lenders ended up violating the basic rule of banking: don't lend people money who can't pay it back.

 But I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake.

But similar remarks apply to the extraposed PPs that are also Out There:

There now are ideas on the table for revitalizing South Queen Street in Kinston.

And note that prepositional phrases can be extraposed from adjectives as well as nouns:

How similar is the GRE to the SAT?


Warning: We should remain agnostic about the movement metaphor implicit in traditional terms like "extraposition", which presuppose that logical structure is an input, transformed into observed structure as an output. The required relations can be established in principle by generative models, by interpretive models, or by constraint-based models that have no intrinsic directionality.

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12 Comments »

  1. Michael Watts said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 8:40 am

    Yeah, this type of postposing is familiar enough to me, but I still had a hard time reading the sentence because of interference from the pattern "make X easier on Y" (reduce the burden of X on Y). So I can see where someone might get the idea that some sort of context-blind rule mangled the sentence.

  2. KevinM said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 9:45 am

    Yeah, the postposing in general seems fine. The real problem with this sentence seems to be that "lawsuits … on [subject]" is not natural. A lawsuit is ordinarily over, about, or for something, less commonly "on" something. So "lawsuit on" has a weak gravitational attraction that is easily overcome by the miscue "make it easier on" [usu. someone].

  3. John Lawler said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    When the meaning settles in, one gets the impression that Pay For Women (capitals added) is being used as a slogan, a fixed unit, expressing in this context a category of lawsuit.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

    It certainly seems plausible that either the author (a college student) or an anonymous editor at the college newspaper publishing this piece could have been exposed in high school or college to some stupid fictitious zombie rule that would have caused this sentence to be recast in a way that makes it harder rather than easier to parse, but I unfortunately don't have a nominee.

    The phrasing of the claim about Abbott also seems odd on pragmatic grounds (w/o getting into the characterization of the policy proposal at hand, which is probably no more tendentious or misleading than is customary for the internet). Typically (and afaik Texas is not an outlier in this regard) legislation of the sort referred to is enacted by a state's legislature, subject to the risk of being vetoed by the governor, with the state's attorney general having no input into the process (unless e.g. the proposal is so controversial that there are questions about whether the AG would defend it in court if it were challenged as unconstitutional). Mr. Abbott's views on the issue are presumably relevant in context not so much because he is the current attorney general but because he is the Republican nominee for governor at the upcoming Texas general election this November and thus would in a position to veto any new legislation in the perhaps unlikely event that both houses of the Texas legislature were to enact a proposal consistent with the policy preferences of feminist UC-Berkeley undergraduates.

    Is there a general name (violation of some Gricean principal?) for the error/glitch of giving description A rather than description B for the subject of your sentence when both A and B are true but it is B rather than A that is more salient to the point of the sentence?

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

    "Pay For Women" could in the abstract well be a fixed phrase for a genre of lawsuit, but if you google around for various combinations like "lawsuit for pay for women" or "pay for women lawsuit" it doesn't seem to be in practice. I think a more common buzz-phrase might be "Equal Pay" where the notion that it is women who typically are on the short end of the alleged inequality is either left implicit because clear from context or expressed in a variety of different ways that have not converged on a single idiomatic phrasing.

    It is possible that my typo of "principal" for "principle" in the prior comment was a Hartman's Law sort of thing even though I was trying to express interest/curiosity in the seeming error I'd noticed rather than be harsh/judgmental – it also seems like the sort of glitch that could easily happen when an earlier draft has both descriptions A and B (because A might be relevant as background even though B is what's salient to the point at hand) and then the need to edit it down for length arose and the decision (whether author's or editor's) as to which to cut and which to keep was suboptimal.

  6. Rubrick said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    The "Lenders" sentence is a case where the embedded version would be far more confusing: "Lenders ended up violating the basic rule of banking: don't lend people who can't pay it back money." (Of course, there are other alternatives better than either, such as "Don't lend money to people who can't pay it back.)

  7. Victoria Simmons said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    I very badly want to recast that as "not make it easier for women to sue for pay." (Or equal pay, or whatever is specifically meant.) Not only is that more clear, but it gives "women" agency, instead of making it sound as though they are streetlamps or something.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

    Although this is not Texas Proposed Legislation Log, those interested in getting a better grasp of the underlying issue in order to think about how to describe it more clearly in English prose might wish to go here http://www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2013/nov/25/senfronia-thompson/macys-other-retailers-asked-rick-perry-veto-equal-/ and then maybe follow some of the links contained therein. (The current controversy is because one of the legislative sponsors of the bill that Gov. Perry vetoed last year is now the Democratic candidate for governor, and her Republican opponent has said that he agrees with the incumbent's decision to veto it.)

    I suspect, fwiw, that this issue could also be spun as just another instance of the cliche/meme Heartless Republicans Side With Big Corporations Against Common Folks Like You and Me, with the specifically feminist gloss being icing on the cake.

  9. chris said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 7:03 pm

    There now are ideas on the table for revitalizing South Queen Street in Kinston.

    I'm not seeing the extraposition here. Unless South Queen Street is not in Kinston, but rather, Kinston is where the ideas are on the table? And the reader is expected to know that without being told? (Perhaps plausible if it appeared in some local publication.)

    Also: is "for women" modifying "pay" or "easier"? (I.e. the lawsuits are being made easier for women, specifically the women who are filing them or might file them.)

    Victoria's comment about streetlamps suggests a reading of "pay for women" as an instance of the common phrase "pay for", which is quite different than what is probably meant. Only at a slave market would you "pay for" (in that sense) women. I think that hinges on a part-of-speech ambiguity as well as rather different meanings of "for".

  10. Colin Fine said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 2:30 am

    Chris: it is the [ideas for revitalizing South Queen Street in Kinston] which are on the table.

  11. Colin Fine said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 2:30 am

    Chris: it is the [ideas for revitalizing South Queen Street in Kinston] which are on the table.

  12. Colin Fine said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 2:30 am

    Chris: it is the [ideas for revitalizing South Queen Street in Kinston] which are on the table.

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