Syntax quiz follow-up

« previous post | next post »

This is a follow-up to my syntax quiz from Sunday. Kai von Fintel was the first to correctly note that it was a trick question: swallow hard is probably intransitive in the relevant McCain quote, and so this is (probably) neither an instance of a parasitic gap nor of "across-the-board movement, coupled with right node raising out of a coordinate structure". There were various good attempts by others to show that it is actually an example of one or the other, though, of course under the assumption that swallow hard is, or at least could be, transitive (one reader even urged me not to concede defeat — even though I hadn't, I had only admitted to planting a trick question). Thanks to those commenters who accepted that the 'intransitive camp' had a point but that they'd like to give the quiz a go on the terms that I laid out.

Interestingly, not one commenter seemed to have bothered to try employing the one diagnostic noted by Jon Nissenbaum in the second of the two Resnick Resnik posts on LL ClassicTM that I linked to in the quiz post. If you read the post you'll see that Resnik called the evidence from this diagnostic "the smoking gun" that proves his identification of a parasitic gap to be incorrect, and that the across-the-board + right-node raising analysis must be right. Employing the diagnostic would have worked like this: try adding another object to McCain's "go forward with"; if the result sounds fine, you have a parasitic gap, and if not, you have ATB+RNR. So here goes (the added object is in boldface):

This is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with our original plan.

I hope this sounds as awful to everyone else as it does to me, pointing to ATB+RNR. But of course, there's the whole transitivity-of-swallow-hard issue to deal with: maybe the added object makes it impossible to interpret something as being the object of anything in this sentence! Personally, I think swallow hard is ambiguous enough in its valency for this factor to have little if anything to do with the badness of the sentence above. We can even prove that this factor is irrelevant by replacing swallow hard with the completely unambiguously transitive think about. The result still sounds bad:

This is something that all of us will think about and go forward with our original plan.

But hey, like Kai said, I'm just a phonologist here. What the hell do I know about syntax?

Finally: I was struck by these three comments, in which the commenters felt the need to mention their lack of understanding of the syntactic terms that I (misleadingly) said were relevant to the quiz. Being something of a link fanatic, I explicitly pointed to the Resnik posts on LL ClassicTM that defined these terms (complete with knock-down diagnostic) in ways that I think are more than sufficient for interested readers to have gone to work on the (again, admittedly misleading) quiz. So follow your links, people. That's what they're there for (well, most of the time).



  1. Nathan Myers said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

    I'm goggling that people who are supposed to be good at this sort of thing (to the point of getting paid for it?) could think the swallow was meant transitively.

    Is there any semantic difference between the original sentence and "All of us will swallow hard and go forward with this, as for other things like it"? Is it tricky to make this transformation syntactically?

  2. Trent said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 7:55 pm


    The sentence is funnier (and/or grosser) if "swallow hard" is transitive. And when presented with tricky puzzles, people go out on a limb.

    And, you know, it is possible to construct a less ambiguous sentence along the lines of the original in which "swallow hard" seems to be transitive:

    "These pills are something all of us will have to swallow hard."

    It's awkward, but hey. …

  3. Timothy Martin said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

    I explicitly pointed to the Resnik posts on LL ClassicTM that defined these terms (complete with knock-down diagnostic) in ways that I think are more than sufficient for interested readers to have gone to work on the (again, admittedly misleading) quiz.

    By which you mean, interested readers who already know what an "island condition" is? Because I don't. And the link to Peggy Speas "explaining it quite clearly" is broken. The text of both links you provided is clearly written for people who have more knowledge of linguistics than I do, and since I qualify as an "interested reader", I think your claim is invalid. The links provided are, in my opinion, quite less than sufficient.

    Interestingly, not one commenter seemed to have bothered to try employing the one diagnostic noted by Jon Nissenbaum in the second of the two Resnick Resnik posts on LL ClassicTM that I linked to in the quiz post.

    That is exactly what I did here:

  4. Laura Kalin said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 10:28 pm

    So, why is "that all of us will swallow hard" not a relative clause? And if it is a relative clause, how is there not a gap (if swallow is intransitive in this quote, as you say)?

  5. Timothy Martin said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

    @Laura Kalin: If swallow was meant to be intransitive, then the whole sentence is grammatically messed up, thus the parasitic gap/RNR issue because moot, no?

  6. onosson said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:03 pm

    I don't think it's necessarily (or even probably) a relative clause, myself.

    I've heard (and said), many times, sentences that fit a similar frame to "This is something that X" where X can be filled by *anything*. For example: "This is something that, I wish I could say how sorry I am", "This is something that, we need to step back and review the situation", etc. For that reason, I would suspect this to in fact be a topicalization, and not a relative clause. I mentioned this in the other post, but didn't elaborate.

    If there is a pause after "that", I think the evidence would be even stronger.

    I might add that, with a pause added, I don't find "This is something that, all of us will swallow hard and go forward with our original plan" to be all that bad, honestly!

  7. Laura Kalin said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:27 pm

    There was definitely no pause after "that" (see video link below – the quote is at the very beginning). If anything, McCain added the second conjunct "and go forward with" as an afterthought (after a pause), making the relative clause analysis even more plausible, since "This is something that all of us will swallow hard" could have been left to stand alone.

  8. Laura Kalin said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

    ps – @ Nathan Myers – I don't know what makes you so sure that "swallow" is intransitive in the quote. If the construction is a relative clause (as I think it is), then there must be a gap/trace after "swallow", so swallow would obligatorily be transitive.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

    @Laura: Wow, exotic drugs, non-native, or something stranger?

  10. onosson said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 12:20 am

    @ Laura Kalin

    Thanks! Seeing and hearing it makes it much clearer.

    However, I'm not sure why the removal of "and go forward with" would make a relative clause analysis *more* plausible? I find "This is something that all of us will swallow hard" pretty difficult to interpret as a relative clause. I take "swallow hard" to be an idiom that doesn't admit a direct object, and have a hard time seeing what can be relativized out of it.

    That said, I could see "swallow hard" occupying some sort of superimposed state where it is neither/both composable and non-composable, and hence both available as an idiom, AND providing a trace/gap for relativization.

    Is there such a thing as quantum syntax???

  11. Timothy Martin said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 12:37 am

    @onosson: If I may butt in to your discussion with Laura Kalin, it seems like the evidence you're offering to support the conclusion that "swallow is intransitive" is your belief that swallow is intransitive! The first thing we have to do is decide the transitivity of the word, and then it will follow from that whether the aforementioned clause is a relative clause or not.

  12. onosson said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 12:59 am

    @Timothy Martin:

    No, I don't believe "swallow" is (always) intransitive, just the idiom "swallow hard". If anyone has any evidence to offer which shows that that idiom is NOT intransitive, I'm all ears! However, as I said above, I am open to the possibility that "swallow hard" is not necessarily, in every case, idiomatic. I don't know what John McCain had in mind when he said those words, I can only use my own best judgement. But of course, the more people weigh in on this the clearer a picture will emerge.

    Back to your last point, though, I think we can take the argument either way. Laura seems to be arguing that since she thinks it's a relative clause, therefore the verb must be transitive. I'm saying that, since I don't think the verb transitive, it can't be a relative clause! Both arguments make sense, if we accept their premises, but there's no reason the argumentation can only go in one direction.

  13. skot said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 3:25 am

    I know this comment isn't really going along with any of the above suppositions, but isn't the whole sentence just bad English?

    This is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with.

    What he meant to say was something like this: "We will have to swallow hard and go forward with this measure, because doing nothing is not an option".

    Like some have said, by using "this is something that", he's confusing the listener by (sort of) using swallow transitively and thus in a way that makes it seem like we have to swallow the bailout plan.

    Maybe he's just mixing metaphors here? Maybe he thinks "swallow hard" is just another way of saying "a hard pill to swallow", instead of "steeling oneself against something". That would explain a lot.

  14. Jennie said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 5:47 am

    Am I being over-simplistic in thinking that the sentence just doesn't make sense and it sounds like he got confused halfway through?

  15. Troy S. said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 6:15 am

    I agree it sounds bad no matter what the interpretation, the transitive interpretation makes more sense, but there is a certain malevolent charm in the transitive one, like McCain's telling us all to "suck it down!" As another poster commented, I agree it comes across mostly as a mixed metaphor, though.

  16. Chris said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 10:22 am

    I think the simplest explanation is that McCain just botched the idiom by inadvertently putting it in a situation that called for a transitive interpretation. Try the OP's verb substitution without adding a second object:

    This is something that all of us will think about and go forward with.

    This is completely standard and unambiguous – and plainly a relative clause. It's only the expectation that "swallow hard" will be intransitive that makes the non-relative-clause interpretation even *possible*, let alone likely.

    Now try it with an unambiguously intransitive verb:

    This is something that all of us will grumble and go forward with.

    Sounds a little odd, at least to me. I expect the "that" to introduce a relative clause, but then the first verb doesn't fit and I have to wait for the second verb to complete the clause – which makes this a broken parallel, doesn't it?

    P.S. onosson's comment seems to point at an idiomatic usage of "this is something that" that I am not familiar with.

  17. Laura Kalin said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 10:29 am

    @onosson: the reason that I thought the transitive analysis would be 'more plausible' without the second conjunct (i.e., if the sentence were simply "This is something that all of us will swallow hard") is because then there would be no contention about there being a gap after "swallow", since there is NO other place the gap could be in that sentence. Once the second conjunct is added, it becomes less clear-cut.

    @Nathan: hasn't language log taught you yet that you can't just rely on your 'intuitions as a native speaker'??

    Anyhow, since no one was willing to answer my question about why it's not a relative clause, I emailed Jon Nissenbaum to have him weigh in on this discussion (he's my professor). And it turns out I was right! Well, at least partially… :)

    I first gave him the example of "This is something that all of us will swallow hard", and told him why I thought "swallow" was transitive. His reply was:
    "Your example is definitely a relative clause — you're right, there's nothing else it could be. Swallow must be transitive there."

    However, as I expected, it's less clear when you add the second conjunct. I'll post the rest of his reply to me below. But, I just want to add first that I think the reason many people are finding McCain's quote strange-sounding or entirely ungrammatical is precisely because there's a strong tendency to parse this construction as a relative clause, with ATB extraction out of both conjuncts; we're being pushed to interpret "swallow" as transitive when "swallow hard" is usually intransitive.

    The rest of Prof. Nissenbaum's reply:
    "However, once the (gapped) conjunct is added, it's no longer certain that swallow has to be parsed transitively. Think about replacing the intransitive sense with a synonym:

    a. *This is something that all of us will grit our teeth.
    b This is something that all of us will grit our teeth and go forward with

    Since 'grit our teeth' can only be intransitive, (a) is ungrammatical — it' s a relative clause with no gap. And (b) is then unambiguous. It seems to me that people who are inclined to parse 'swallow hard' as intransitive (I think I'm in that camp) are just interpreting the McCain sentence like (b).

    True, on that parse it presents a violation of the 'coordinate structure constraint'. But that constraint is known to have holes. Under conditions that are rather poorly understood, when the two conjuncts are related in some way (causally, temorally,…) it is possible to extract out of one. Someone (I forget who, maybe Jim McCawley) famously came up with an example with many conjuncts with traces in every other one, something like

    That's the book that I went to the store, bought _, came home, read _, lit a fire and then burned _."

  18. onosson said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 10:49 am

    @ Chris: Yeah, I guess that's what's going on here. I seem to have "X that Y" available in my dialect as a way to make topic-comment types of utterances, but obviously this is not the case for everyone. It's certainly non-standard, though I would be surprised if it, or something like it, didn't occur in other parts of the English-speaking world. I mentioned somewhere earlier that I could replace "that" with "where" (and possibly some others) in the same structure, i.e. "This is something where all of us will swallow hard…" – does that not work for you, either? As I say, this is definitely NON-standard, and fairly informal but, for me at least, it's completely grammatical.

    @ Laura: I see your point about the shorter form having only one place available for the gap to be – makes sense!

    I find all of this quite interesting, as I am fairly interested in dialectal differences, especially regarding N. American English, so further comments are much appreciated!

  19. onosson said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    Follow-up to my last comment…

    I just found the following sentence in a review of a movie called "The Linguists, appropriately enough" (the review is from the Washington Post):

    "There's a better attitude nowadays where people don't just pay lip service to the idea of diversity, but they understand that diversity does actually strengthen a society, strengthens us intellectually, strengthens us socially."

    The only way I can interpret this is in terms of the [X where/that Y] kind of structure I was talking about earlier.

    Is this sentence simply ungrammatical for anyone?

  20. Rick S said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

    @onosson: It sounds grammatical to me, but in this sentence where isn't a relativizer, is it? Or if it is, the gap would be in a missing PP: "There's a better attitude nowadays where at __ people …."

    Your "X that Y" construction is one I've heard and understood, but not one I'd use. I agree that it's nonstandard and informal, and if pressed I'd say it doesn't sound grammatical to me. But IANAL so that's an unauthoritive assessment, and LL has made me chary about those. (Here, anyway.)

  21. Eric Baković said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    @ Timothy Martin: You're right, you did employ Nissenbaum's diagnostic (correctly), and I apologize. I must have accidentally skipped your comment somehow.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    People keep posting that "think about" substitutes synonymically for "swallow hard". That doesn't work, because it implies something to think about, where "swallow hard" stands by itself. If you need a substitute for the idiom, try "grimace" or "wince".

  23. Nathan Myers said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

    @Laura Kalin: The production of that one sentence redeems the entire population of book critics.

  24. John Atkinson said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 2:00 am

    "This is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with"

    It's hard for me to see how anyone can consider "swallow" as anything but intransitive in this case. Just as in

    "This is something that all of us will grit our teeth and go forward with"

    "grit" is transitive, but doesn't have the relative pronoun as its object. At first glance, it looks to me like "swallow hard and go forward" and "grit our teeth and go forward" are acting like composite verbs (which may just be a less technical way of saying what some of you syntactically literate persons have already said).

    BTW, both the above come through my acceptibility filter as just a little iffy. However

    "This is something that all of us will have to swallow hard and go forward with"

    "This is something that all of us will have to grit our teeth and go forward with"

    sound perfectly fine to me. No idea why.

  25. diam diam said,

    October 10, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

    I'm surprised no one mentioned the possible reading of the sentence in which "hard" is a depictive of swallowing, i.e. "to swallow x while x is (still) hard", much like the common phrase "to swallow whole". Of course, it's tricky to get this interpretation because the phrase "swallow hard" has just about been idiom-ized to mean "to steel oneself to do something that one is afraid to do" (as Mark F. points out), so most people are probably semantically (or it it pragmatically?) garden-pathed, particularly since I assume that the context in which this clunker was uttered favors that interpretation.
    Whichever syntactic analysis best accounts for "This is something that all of us will swallow __ and go forward with __" would account for the sentence with a depictive reading of "hard".
    So even though McCain probably didn't mean it that way, I think his sentence can be given a perfectly grammatical reading (that isn't actually particularly weird).

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment