The biter bit

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In re-reading my post on Prof. Fish's attempt to correct the syntax of an AT&T call center employee, I'm led to wonder whether his cri de coeur ("It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct") is itself syntactically correct.

The basic construction here is what is traditionally called "extraposition from subject" (see e.g. here for further discussion and examples). It involves an expletive pronoun it (sometimes also called a "pleonastic" or "dummy" pronoun) in subject position, standing in for a sentence-final clause that might have been the subject:

It's a shame that things turned out so badly. = That things turned out so badly is a shame.

It's not clear what she wanted. = What she wanted is not clear.

It's odd how well the timing worked out. = How well the timing worked out is odd.

So the sentence "It is a factual matter what is and is not syntactically correct" would be normal, though awkward because of the three repetitions of "is", the hard-to-parse "and", etc. The version with the what-clause in subject position would be "What is and is not syntactically correct is a factual matter".  However, adding "as to" between "matter" and "what" is not only redundant, but (it seems to me) probably ungrammatical.

Certainly the result of putting the whole final constituent in subject position seems quite bad to me:

*As to what is and is not syntactically correct is a factual matter.

And even more obviously, the what-clause doesn't work as the subject:

*What is and is not syntactically correct is a factual matter as to.

So alternatively, we could try to analyze the initial "it" not as a dummy pronoun, but rather as as a regular pronoun, referring to the question of what is or is not syntactically correct. This would work if we set things up with an initial prepositional phrase:

As to what is and is not syntactically correct, it is a factual matter.

That sentence is pompous and awkward, but grammatical. However, this kind of pronominal reference generally doesn't work when a pronoun in a main clause tries to refer to something introduced later in the sentence.  For example, compare

As to her motivationsi, theyi are hard for me to understand.
*Theyi are hard for me to understand(,) as to her motivationsi.

And similarly, I think that it doesn't work to analyze the initital "it" of Prof. Fish's sentence as referring to the distribution of syntactic correctness, introduced in the later clause headed by "what":

*Iti is a factual matter as to [ what is or is not syntactically correct ]i

My conclusion is that in his distress, Prof. Fish got confused, and began his sentence with one construction while ending it with another. That happens to all of us from time to time.

Perhaps I've missed an analysis — if so, please point it out in the comments, since this is one of many occasions in life when the lesson of John 8:3-11 is worth pondering.

[Let me note that just as there are plenty of examples out there of redundant pronouns like the one that enraged Prof. Fish, there are also plenty of examples out there of the construction that he used in complaining about it. Here are a few of them:

It's strange as to what's happening.
It is a factual matter as to whether the certifier has read the MDR regulation, whether the company has established a system to implement those regulations, and how many MDR's the company submitted to FDA as a result of following that system.
Given the weight and density of concrete and the massive pumps that are required to do this, it's obvious as to why it's a difficult task.
Wobuffet is an uber and it's simple as to why.

In the case of the redundant pronouns, it turned out that the phenomenon goes back to Middle English, though perhaps the analysis and the function have shifted. I wonder about the dynamics of "It is X as to WH-clause". Is this an old construction, or a new development? I also wonder about the sociolinguistics -- the examples that I've seen seem to come from two types of context: ponderously pompous contexts ("It is a factual matter as to whether the certifier...") and breezily sub-standard contexts ("... and it's simple as to why").  Does this impression hold up under examination? ]

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16 Comments »

  1. Mike Aubrey said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    Unfortunately, John 8:3-11 probably never happened.

    [(myl) I don't know the arguments either way, but the nice thing about such stories is that their value as moral lessons is not dependent on their historical truth. ]

  2. Faldone said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    "It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct"

    While the "as to" might or might not be unnecessary words what I find to be a problem ia that as worded it suggests that the what is possibly both true and not true. I would think that it needs another what, i.e., "It is a factual matter (as to) what is and what is not syntactically correct."

    @ Mike Aubrey. One of the important lessons I learned during my time in the Navy is that something need not have actually happened to be true.

  3. Faldone said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

    For "ia" read "is".

  4. Breffni said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

    It´s certainly hard to untangle syntactically, but it´s a common enough construction. Google "it is a * as to why" for 129,000 hits. Some proportion of these will be [noun+WH-clause complement] structures, like "It is a clue as to why we find ourselves imprisoned…", but many of the first hits are definitely cases of extraposition, mainly with "puzzle" and "mystery".

    Fish´s sentence doesn´t sound bad to me, and in fact there are cases where "as to" seems to me at least as good as the alternative:

    "It is a toss-up as to who is most displeased when Patrolman Moe Finkelstein ( Milton Berle) is given the duty of guarding the German consulate…"

    vs

    "It is a toss-up who is most displeased when…"

    I wonder if the noun+AS-TO+wh-clause pattern has bled into the extraposition construction? It strikes me as pretty well established in any case.

  5. Alexandra said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    I read it as synonymous with "It is a factual matter *of* what is and is not syntactically correct," parallel to sentences like "It is a matter of opinion." I'm not sure why one would replace "of" with "as to," other than to try to sound more formal. I also can't think of any other examples where "matter" would be preceded by an adjective, so maybe my analysis is wrong. Did anyone else first read it this way?

  6. mollymooly said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    I don't think the construction involves a pleonastic "it".

    She said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

    I lost it. It has nothing to do with feelings, I ranted. It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct.

    Here the highlighted Its have the same reference; something vague like "the cause of my complaint".

    The OED sv as, sense 33 a, has

    33. a. With prepositions, as has the general sense of as far as, so far as, and thus restricts or specially defines the reference of the preposition; e.g. as against, as between. as anent, as concerning, as for, as to, as touching (Fr. quant à), have all the sense of ‘as it regards, so far as it concerns, with respect or reference to.’

    I think "as to" has become semantically bleached from this, and is now used simply as a pompous form of "about", "concerning". Thus I would paraphrase the sentence under discussion as:

    The cause of my complaint is a factual matter concerning what is and is not syntactically correct.

    Verbose but grammatical.

  7. Breffni said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    I´ve just seen Mark´s addition:

    the examples that I've seen seem to come from two types of context: ponderously pompous contexts… and breezily sub-standard contexts

    These are the first hits from Google Books for the pattern {"it is a * as to whether" -"it is a question as to whether" -"it is a dispute as to whether"}:

    It is a moot question as to whether the artist created the movement or the movement created the artist

    It is a different question as to whether the beliefs concerned need to be about typical features at all.

    The bill is a high-priority item, but it is a tossup as to whether a bill can be shaped and pushed through both houses before this session ends.

    However, because Maryland is so close to every part of the District, it is a tossup as to whether cigar smokers would find it easier to buy their cigars by…

    It is a moot question as to whether the obvious relationship of the Panchatantra fable, in motifs and general sense, to the Grail Castle adventure is to be …

    Defendant contends that there is no proof as to what claims or amount thereof were allowed, and that, as the record stands, it is a conjecture as to whether… (can´t see the continuation, but it looks like it´s probably an extraposition; dated 1940).

    These are mostly formal, but by and large they don´t seem ponderous or pompous to me. And the informal ones (with "tossup") aren´t exactly sub-standard. Also, note that that last one (admittedly a slightly doubtful case) dates to 1940.

  8. peter said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

    Rather than being pleonastic, it seems to me that such untethered pronouns are evidence that English has (or, perhaps more strictly, some speakers of English speak as if English has) a topic-comment grammatical structure. In other words, the "it" refers to the topic of the dialog between the parties, which topic is annotated by the remainder of the utterance.

  9. Richard said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

    As to the sociolinguistics, so to speak, we might note Fowler's proscription of the use of "as to whether" (King's English, part II, sect. 40):

    This is a form that is seldom necessary, and should be reserved for sentences in which it is really difficult to find a substitute. Abstract nouns that cannot be followed immediately by whether should if possible be replaced by the corresponding verbs. Many writers seem to delight in this hideous combination, and employ it not only with abstracts that can be followed by whether, but even with verbs.

    In fact the examples that he gives include instances of "as to where" and "as to how" too.

    Evidently in the early 20th century these forms were (at least potentially) sociolinguistic markers for a certain group of users of British English.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

    Richard: As to the sociolinguistics, so to speak, we might note Fowler's proscription of the use of "as to whether" …

    mollymooly: I don't think the construction involves a pleonastic "it"…

    Fowler is talking about "as to whether" etc. as complements to abstract nouns. On mollymooly's account, Prof. Fish was indeed using "as to what is and is not" as a complement to "fact" (or perhaps "matter of fact"). In effect, on her construal, he was saying:

    "The issue here is a matter of fact as to what is and is not syntactically correct".

    She might well be right. I argued that this analysis would not work, on the grounds that his subject (which was the pronoun "it", not the noun phrase "the issue here") couldn't refer forward. But perhaps she's right that it refers back, or in some vaguer direction.

    In any case, Prof. Fish should be given credit for one of the most awkwardly expressed grammatical peeves of all time.

    And there are certainly lots of similar examples out there where the "it" is clearly pleonastic.

  11. Faldone said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

    peter: Rather than being pleonastic, it seems to me that such untethered pronouns are evidence that English has (or, perhaps more strictly, some speakers of English speak as if English has) a topic-comment grammatical structure. In other words, the "it" refers to the topic of the dialog between the parties, which topic is annotated by the remainder of the utterance.

    I think this is the case. Many instances of the so-called dangling participle can be analyzed with the notion of a topic separate from the subject as a part of the sentence.

  12. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 3:46 am

    Here (from a later LL post) is a sentence without a pleonastic "it" where I would have expected one:

    "I love that even Geoffrey K. Pullum is still susceptible to the righteous indignation we first-year graduate students so often (and enthusiastically) succumb to [etc.]".

    I don't know where this construction comes from. It seems quite a recent one to me (note "seems", I know about the possibility of illusion).

    I would find it natural to say, and would expect to hear, "I love it that (such and such is the case) . . ." And would anyone write "I would find natural to say (such and such)"? I don't think so, but I'm quite expecting to be proved wrong.

    I have a copy of CGEL, but if this question is discussed there I haven't yet found the passage. "It" has a long index entry, but there's nothing relevant at the page numbers printed in the index in bold.

  13. Dave2 said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 6:50 am

    I had the same thought mollymooly did, and I'm now convinced that she's right. Notice that he's drawing a contrast with the previous sentence: "It has nothing to do with feelings, I ranted. It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct."

    We can restate it like this: It's not a matter of feelings. It's a factual matter — in particular, it is a factual matter concerning what it is and is not syntactically correct.

    It is with great reluctance that I defend Stanley Fish, but I don't think his sentence is the slightest bit awkward when properly understood, and I think the previous sentence will naturally lead one to the proper understanding.

  14. Tim said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 9:09 am

    Mark : I think, in your addendum, you meant to say "redundant prepositions", rather than "redundant pronouns".

    Faldone : Rather than repeating "what", you could probably also fix that issue by replacing "and" with "or".

    Simon : I don't think anyone would write "I would find natural to say [such and such]", but I think that's because of the awkwardness of inserting "natural to say" between the verb and the object. I could more easily imagine someone saying "I would find [such and such] natural to say". But probably only for fairly short values of [such and such], and even then it would be very uncommon.

  15. ChrisB said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    http://www.geocities.com/a_christian_conservative/john8.html gives reference [below] to reasons to doubt John 8:3-11, not only for historicity, but even for origin in the Johannine community. That page also argues for limits on the application of the story to modern capital punishment.

    Granted, for all but a tiny minority of Christians, the exact layer of authorship in the strata of John does not determine the story's moral utility. But I think it is worth questioning the breadth of its application. The story's appeal is the eloquence of its argument against a death penalty for adultery, originally for an audience (be that Jesus's followers or the readership for whom a fourth century editor wrote) that already saw such sanction as excessive. Had the offense been murder, I doubt the story would have appealed to an ancient audience. It was the disproportion of offense and sanction that would require an executioner without any sin–a vacuous case. The implicit argument places adultery at a level of lesser sins, by which stoning would be an arbitrary excess as compared to the lack of sanction for sins that all in the audience have committed.

    So I'd argue the original intent of the story may not apply to a case of sytactical offense and written grouchery. Writing to The Times to criticize a purported corporate standard of spoken syntactical atrocity strikes me as a far lesser disproportion than stoning for adultery. However, our grouch being Prof. Fish himself, we should certainly be free to interpret the story more broadly. I'd propose this principle: a scholar dinimishes his syntactic arguments unless he takes great care to be syntactically correct in that criticism. Moreover, he should not commit the specific error in question in other works of similar formality to the subject usage. That strikes this twenty-first century observer as a fair standard, though perhaps "physician heal thyself" or "remove the plank from your own eye" are the more appropriate Gospel references.

    [The page's scholarly reference appears to be Raymond E Brown, trans., The Gospel According to John (i-xii), The Anchor Bible, vol 29 (Garden City, NY.: Doubleday & Co, 1983), pp. 332-334.]

  16. Jangari said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

    Peter:

    Rather than being pleonastic, it seems to me that such untethered pronouns are evidence that English has (or, perhaps more strictly, some speakers of English speak as if English has) a topic-comment grammatical structure. In other words, the "it" refers to the topic of the dialog between the parties, which topic is annotated by the remainder of the utterance.

    I think topic-comment as an analysis of English clauses is completely possible in a wider discourse level, just as it is possible for probably all languages, since such an analysis is mostly representational. I actually regard these fronted pronoun constructions as evidence of an overriding syntactic constraint in English that each verb must have an overt (or otherwise controlled) subject.

    But clearly this constraint is under threat in some dialects, specifically those that can say things like "S'raining today", "M'alright" and "funny you should say that". Arguably there still is an overt subject in these examples that has been elided, but I reckon one would be hard-pressed to typologically distinguish these constructions from genuine pro-drop like in many head-marking languages.

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