Archive for coordination

Ask Language Log: an and ambiguity

In this morning's mail:

My friend and I are avid Language Log readers. We were recently conversing over IM, and she was telling me about her boyfriend's great-aunt. Among the things she mentioned:

"She worked when women didn't work very much and never got married."

I interpreted her statement as my friend alluding to a time when women both didn't work and did not get married. After a few moments, I realized she was telling me that the great-aunt had a job and never got married; "when women" only modified "didn't work very much." We are unsure which reading is technically correct and therefore decided to ask.   Any insight you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

I'm not a syntactician, but I usually take the morning shift here at Language Log Plaza, so I'll do my best with this one — luckily, it seems pretty straightforward.

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Agreement with disjunctive subjects

A reader writes to ask about disjunctive subjects in English and how subject-verb agreement works in cases like the following:

Neither Barbara nor I ?am ?is ?are able to …
If you or I ?am ?are there, …

As it happens, I posted on the subject to ADS-L some years. I intended to post a version on Language Log, but I seem not to have gotten around to it. Until now.

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Woody outside the syntactic box

Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona has now reached Edinburgh, and made a wonderful movie for a Valentine's Day date yesterday. (A wonderful film, too; the whole script is interesting and intelligent as well as funny and appealing, and Penelope Cruz's electric, chew-up-the-scenery portrayal of a deranged artist is incredible — near Oscar level.) But what a strange syntactic move Woody made in naming the picture. The three names are just concatenated: Vicky is one of the girls, Cristina is the other, and Barcelona is the city where most of the the action is located. There's absolutely no grammatical warrant for that at all. For example, although you can interpret Celery, apples, walnuts, grapes as an asyndetic coordination (a conjunction without an overt and), the commas are obligatory in written English: *Celery apples walnuts grapes is not grammatical at all. And similarly, it would be possible to interpret Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona as a coordination with three coordinates; but the string Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn't have that privilege. It's got the written-English syntax of a single personal name. (Dougal Stanton, here in Edinburgh, noticed
today that the people running the Cameo on Home Street were confused enough to abbreviate it to "Vicky C. Barcelona" on their large signs — exactly as if it were somebody's name.) Woody is thinking right outside of the syntactic box. (Which is OK, of course, for an artist. This is an observation about innovative syntax, not a correction or a criticism.)

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What is putatively inviolable but it got violated anyway?

I was busy throwing out works by Jerry Fodor today (one really has to, every year or two, or one's whole office would eventually become clogged and unusable) when I noticed that the title of his December 2005 Presidential Address to the Eastern Division of the (published in Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association 80:2 [November 2006], 11-24) is a violation of the Coordinate Structure Constraint:

What Is Universally Quantified and Necessary
and A Posteriori and It Flies South in the Winter?

You might think it would embarrass a famous defender of the idea that we have innate knowledge of universal grammar if he unreflectingly wrote and published a sentence that violated an important constraint of universal grammar. But it won't.

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Everett on the Pirahã in The Guardian

The Guardian interviewed Dan Everett while he was in the UK recently for lectures in Edinburgh and London, and has published a piece about Dan and the Pirahã. The Language Log fan who was the first to point it out to us (thanks, Rachele) asks about its example of recursion. It says:

Chomsky … recently refined his theory to argue that recursion — the linguistic practice of inserting phrases inside others – was the cornerstone of all languages. (An example of recursion is extending the sentence "Daniel Everett talked about the story of his life" to read, "Daniel Everett flew to London and talked about the story of his life".)

Is that recursion? Well, unfortunately the matter isn't clear. Let me explain.

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Both support as well as being ready

"It's essential that we take action to both support the banking system as a whole — as well as being ready to intervene in particular cases when it's necessary to do so", said the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling to reporters yesterday. Ungrammatically, I think.

Forget the fact that to both support is an instance of the so-called "split infinitive": modifiers have been placed between to and the verb in an infinitival clause, by good writers, throughout the history of English. (Those who jump on them as "errors" don't know as much about English grammar as they would like you to think they do.) No, it's the fact that the both never gets its correlated and. For me, the construction both X as well as Y (for any phrases X and Y), though common in unplanned speech, is not syntactically well formed. Particularly not when X is a plain-form (bare infinitive) verb phrase and Y is a gerund-participial verb phrase. That is (to invent a shorter case of the same sort), *to both survive as well as flourishing seems to me like an error of sentence planning, where what was intended was to both survive and flourish.

Of course, there could be people who differ, and see no slip in the Chancellor's remark. (Recall the surprising number of commenters on this post of mine who judged my ungrammatical example to be grammatical — though in that case I was able to determined that the original writer of the sentence agreed with me.) Not every expert user of Standard English has exactly the same judgments of grammaticality as every other user. But even a man who finds both support … as well as being ready ungrammatical may blurt it out when speaking under conditions of extreme stress.

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Headline FLoP

A headline from today's entertainment page:

(1) Brinkley spouse slept with, gave teen $300K

This is a lovely example of FLoP coordination, what would be a routine Right Node Raising (with the NP teen shared between the two conjuncts), except that something extra, $300K, follows teen in the second conjunct, so that the two conjuncts are not parallel.

There are several extra twists in this one.

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Double play: gapless relative in non-parallel coordination

Sometimes you get two at once. Here's a double play, from speech quoted by Cornelia Dean in "Physicists in Congress Calculate Their Influence", NYT Science Times, 6/10/08, p. D2:

Problems arise not just in obviously science-related issues, but also, as Mr. Holt [congressman Rush Holt] put it, in "those countless issues, and it really is countless, that have scientific and technological components but the issues are not seen as science issues."

Stripping away some extraneous complexities, we get:

(1) Problems arise in countless issues that have scientific components but the issues are not seen as science issues.

There is a parsing of (1) in which it's unproblematic, but I think the parsing Holt most likely intended has a gapless relative in non-parallel coordination (two phenomena we've written about here before, but not in combination).

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And/or: "and AND or", or "and OR or"?

Does and/or mean "and and or", or "and or or"? That is, if I say I am interested in A and/or B, do I mean I'm interested in A and B and I'm interested in A or B, or do I mean that I'm interested in A and B or I'm interested in A or B? (You may want to say that it means I'm interested in A and B and/or I'm interested in A or B; but in that case I repeat my question.)

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