Extreme right node raising

« previous post | next post »

Wikipedia explains that "right node raising" is "a sharing mechanism that sees the material to the immediate right of parallel structures being in some sense 'shared' by those parallel structures, e.g. [Sam likes] but [Fred dislikes] the debates."

This construction is alive and well in modern English, but it flourished to a much greater extent in centuries past. I believe that it was once more common, though I don't have quantitative evidence. But 18th-century authors certainly produced examples that seem to go beyond the boundaries of modern prose style.

Here's a case in point, from Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter X: Emperors Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian And Gallienus.—Part II:

The Scythian hordes, which, towards the east, bordered on the new settlements of the Goths, presented nothing to their arms, except the doubtful chance of an unprofitable victory. But the prospect of the Roman territories was far more alluring; and the fields of Dacia were covered with rich harvests, sown by the hands of an industrious, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike, people.

As I read this passage on the plane to Helsinki, the part that I've put in bold struck me as characteristic of Gibbon's time, and foreign to contemporary prose style.

And sensitized by this experience, I noticed six other examples of right-node raising in the next few paragraphs:

The approaching event of war soon put an end to the prosecution of a project so specious, but so impracticable; and whilst it preserved Valerian from the danger, saved the emperor Decius from the disappointment, which would most probably have attended it. A censor may maintain, he can never restore, the morals of a state.

If the new monarch possessed the abilities, he wanted the time, necessary to fulfil these splendid promises.

Under these general appellations, we may comprehend the adventures of less considerable tribes, whose obscure and uncouth names would only serve to oppress the memory and perplex the attention of the reader.

Every passage has been sifted, every spot has been surveyed, that might possibly reveal some faint traces of their origin. It has been supposed that Pannonia, that Gaul, that the northern parts of Germany, gave birth to that celebrated colony of warriors.

Many of these are well within the bounds of modern style, but I think that the frequency of the construction is greater than we would expect in the text of a recently-written history.


Finally, this passage, from a bit later in the book, employs a couple of additional examples to express some interesting sentiments:

The love of liberty was the ruling passion of these Germans; the enjoyment of it their best treasure; the word that expressed that enjoyment, the most pleasing to their ear. They deserved, they assumed, they maintained the honorable appellation of Franks, or Freemen; which concealed, though it did not extinguish, the peculiar names of the several states of the confederacy. Tacit consent, and mutual advantage, dictated the first laws of the union; it was gradually cemented by habit and experience. The league of the Franks may admit of some comparison with the Helvetic body; in which every canton, retaining its independent sovereignty, consults with its brethren in the common cause, without acknowledging the authority of any supreme head, or representative assembly. But the principle of the two confederacies was extremely different. A peace of two hundred years has rewarded the wise and honest policy of the Swiss. An inconstant spirit, the thirst of rapine, and a disregard to the most solemn treaties, disgraced the character of the Franks.


Update — As an estimate of this construction's frequency in Gibbon's Decline and Fall, I divided the text into sentences (57,930 of them, more or less), chose 100 at random, and found that 10 of the random 100 contained instances of right node raising. In a second random sample of 100 sentences, 6 exhibited the construction.]



23 Comments

  1. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 1:04 am

    The one about oppressing the memory and perplexing the attention I’ve seen quoted too often to register as odd.

  2. GH said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 1:11 am

    I don't remember seeing it before, but it doesn't strike me as particularly odd either, and it's more elegant than any alternative I can think of (unlike the first example, where "sown by the hands of an industrious people, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike one" seems to me much preferable).

  3. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 1:24 am

    > I noticed six other examples from the next few paragraphs: […]

    Six other examples of right node raising in general, or "foreign to contemporary prose style" in particular? Because several of them seem more-or-less normal to me (including the one that Andreas Johansson and GH mention).

    [(myl) Of right-node raising in general; I agree that many of them are are well within the boundaries of contemporary style.]

  4. yoandri dominguez said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 2:08 am

    It was indeed the wont of olden folk to vary syntax as much as possible thru various equally syntactic constructings, some more dense & recursive, whilst others shorter & of a pithier kind, yet in the progress of the English language, pith was chosen, picked, & extolled as superior, more so if not for the hyperreality of a theory by the name of The Chomsky, a sickness, no less, expurgandum truly-que delendum quod est & iam longo die fuit.
    *final note* take "hyperreality" as you will, when i myself do not wit.

  5. yoandri dominguez said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 2:12 am

    not "if not for" but "because of", sorry

  6. Saurs said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 3:33 am

    Good show, yoandri dominguez!

    Given the backgrounds (and general cringeworthy mannerisms) of authors who regularly employed it this way in English, I wonder if classical learning (and the contemporary translation of classical literature) had any effect here. Some of the notable offenders exhibited an obvious appreciation elsewhere for the syntax of more inflected languages (preferring classical- v English-style hyperbaton, for example).

  7. David Marjanović said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 6:03 am

    and the fields of Dacia were covered with rich harvests, sown by the hands of an industrious, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike, people.

    Wow. Maybe there's a comparable example in 19th-century German, but no guarantees.

  8. ajay said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 7:32 am

    Yes, the first example seems clumsy to the point of being comical; possibly because the right node is just a single word. "When I was growing up, my parents had a friendly and boisterous Old English sheep, whose memory I have attempted to preserve by buying a German sheep, dog.

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 11:23 am

    Are you counting the very last sentence ("An inconstant spirit…") as an example of right-node raising? To me it seems not much different from a coordinated NP such as "The owl and the pussycat went to sea".

    [(myl) No, that example just has a conjoined subject.]

  10. rosie said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

    Part of what makes the first example clumsy is that the expression common to the two conjuncts is at least two levels deep in each.

  11. AntC said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 6:48 pm

    I notice extensive use of commas (and semicolons) to mark off these phrases. That seems not so modern, even if the sentence is.

    Does that inform us wrt the notorious prefatory clause and its evanescent commas in the Second Amendment, that Neal is investigating?

    Was Gibbon influenced by Latin? Perhaps parallel structures work better in an inflected language?

  12. Viseguy said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 6:49 pm

    Can't help but think of "Dead Man Walking".

    I would, or would not, hesitate to use, or not use, this construction if I thought that it would help, or not help, get, or not get, my point, or something other than my point, across. In other words, I'm okay with it.

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 7:44 pm

    I thought I'd found an extreme example in an email blurb I received today for an online course:

    Increase your quantitative reasoning skills through and understand probability.

    Clicking through to the website, however, yields a more expansive blurb:

    Increase your quantitative reasoning skills through a deeper understanding of probability and statistics.

    So I'm guessing the apparent right-node raising in the condensed version was just a garbled transcription of "Increase your quantitative reasoning skills through an understanding of probability."

  14. Sean M said,

    June 20, 2018 @ 3:34 am

    AntC: Yes, that passage screams "classical Latin style" but I don't have a parallel on the tip of my tongue. The most common form is when a sentence falls into an unexpected order when you finally meet the main verb (still acceptable in formal written German!), but the first sentence by Gibbon would have met the approval of the best rhetoric teachers.

    For Augustan English I think of "Slight is the Subject, but not so the Praise,/If She inspire, and He approve my Lays."

  15. James Wimberley said,

    June 20, 2018 @ 8:04 am

    Gibbon and other writers of the period were saturated with the hexameters of Homer and Virgil, with two balanced parts to every line. English speakers have lost this; Shakespeare's iambic pentameter is much closer to the rhythms of everyday or formal speech.

    French writers are more familiar with this type of metre from the alexandrines of Racine. Is the node-raising form more common in French writing today? André Malraux's speech on the transfer of the ashes of Jean Moulin to the Panthéon in 1964, a masterpiece of high style, certainly uses the two-part rhythms.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    June 20, 2018 @ 7:12 pm

    While certainly those of Gibbon's age were exposed to the classics to an extent hard to imagine today, I have my doubts about this particular construction's being taken from that source.

    It is exactly the relatively straightforward word order of English that allows such complicated and crazy structure to be used with no ambiguity. I would not expect such cleverness (in prose!) in an inflected, free-order language.

    It may be out of fashion today, but the elegance, at least of the first example, can't be denied. On the other hand, many other aspects of 18th-century style now seem horribly ponderous; I am not claiming that written English has declined from any state of near perfection.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 20, 2018 @ 7:17 pm

    James Wimberley: As Sean M's quotation illustrates, Pope at least was adept at fitting these structures into iambic pentameter:

    Then prostrate [he] falls, and begs with ardent eyes
    Soon to obtain, and long possess the prize:

    Are these right-node raising?

    Our humbler province is to tend the fair,
    Not a less pleasing, though less glorious care.

    The peer now spreads the glitt'ring forfex wide,
    T' inclose the lock; now joins it, to divide.

  18. Sean M said,

    June 21, 2018 @ 3:59 am

    Andrew Usher: The SOV word order and fusional morphology of Latin make it even easier. You wanted prose, so how about some Tacitus (Annales 1.4) qui rem publicam interim premant quandoque distrahant. "[they were going to be slaves to a woman and two striplings] who would oppress for a time, and one day shatter, the commonwealth."

    What Gibbon offered his contemporaries was a history which combined the rhetorical flourishes and improving morals of Roman historiography with the careful attention to sources of church history, and he spent years soaking in Greek and Latin prose.

  19. David N. Evans said,

    June 21, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

    I have long wondered whether mundane examples involving transitive-verb coordination before a shared direct object ("He peeled and ate the banana") and coordinated possessive constructions ("I met John's and Sally's friends"), not to be confused with joint-possessive constructions ("I met John and Sally's friends"), properly qualify as containing right node raising. If anyone here could tell me whether they do, I'd greatly appreciate it.

  20. David Marjanović said,

    June 21, 2018 @ 5:14 pm

    qui rem publicam interim premant quandoque distrahant

    Yes, that's something I don't even notice, because it's quite common in German – this example happens to be a subordinate clause, and those have SOV order in German by default. Contrast my reaction to "by […] an industrious, and […] by […] a warlike, people" above.

  21. ajay said,

    June 22, 2018 @ 5:07 am

    In a way it's the mirror image of syllepsis ("She lowered her standards by raising her glass/ Her courage, her eyes – and his hopes") and could equally well be used for comic effect:
    "On arriving at Cape Canaveral, she was unable to find a parking, despite the navigation skills she had developed over several missions to outer, space."

  22. Sean M said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 4:57 am

    David Marjanović; yes, my argument is that fashionable stylistic devices in Golden Age and Silver Age Latin (separating adjective and the noun it modifies by half a dozen words, having several modified verbs share one object) are being carried over into Gibbon's English.

  23. Sean M said,

    June 23, 2018 @ 10:40 am

    Also, it looks like Zeugma is the Greek name for all of these devices. I am a chronicle-scribe not a rhetor, so I am sure someone skilled in classical rhetoric could rattle off half a dozen parallels in Greek and Latin.

RSS feed for comments on this post