Archive for relative clauses

Citizenship and syntax (updated, and updated again)

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed by Michael Anton arguing that the United States should do away with birthright citizenship—the principle that anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, even if their parents are foreign-born noncitizens. The op-ed has attracted a lot of attention from people on both the left and the right, and by “attention” I mean “condemnation”. (E.g., Garrett Epps at The Atlantic, Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, Dan Drezner at the Washington Post, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, Alex Nowraseth at The American Conservative, and Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy. See also this Vox explainer.)

The criticism both on on Anton’s nativism, but also on his interpretation of the 14th Amendment, on which birthright citizenship is based. One of the interpretive moves for which Anton has been criticized is his handling of a statement made on the floor of the Senate while the proposed text of the 14th Amendment was being debated. And that dispute turns on the resolution of a syntactic ambiguity.

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Resumptive pronoun of the week

Jonathan O'Connell, "Feds, Trump attorneys wrangle over president’s D.C. hotel lease", Washington Post 2/10/2017 [emphasis added:

Chaffetz told reporters this week that he was interested to learn how officials intended to grapple with the potentially awkward situation in which the Trump-led government intended to negotiate with a business controlled by the president’s family.

“His being both the landlord and the tenant is something that we’re curious what the GSA’s opinion of that is,” Chaffetz said.

The earliest version of this quote seems to have come from Kyle Cheney, "Chaffetz has no idea why Trump wants to see him", Politico 2/7/2017, and it's been reproduced in several other stories. But I haven't been able to find a recording, and there's no evidence that reporters' shoddy quotation practices have improved, so despite the quotation marks, we have no way to know whether these are Chaffetz's words or a reporter's  paraphrase.

Whoever created the sentence, however, it offers a nice example of what linguists call a "resumptive pronoun".

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Gaps inside adjunct phrases

Linguists have often assumed that the principles of English syntax do not allow a dependency between the head noun and the "gap" in a relative clause to span the boundaries of an adjunct such as a conditional if phrase. They will invent pairs of this sort to illustrate the ungrammatical results:

  1. I'm working with a man that I think you would absolutely hate.
  2. *I'm working with a man that if you saw you would throw up.

In the first, the meaning of the relative clause is "I think you would absolutely hate him", and syntactically there is a gap where the object of hate (underlined) would have been. But in the second, the meaning of the relative clause is if you saw him you would throw up, and the underlined pronoun is inside the conditional adjunct if you saw [him]. Having the gap inside the adjunct is not permitted, they say.

And they mean that descriptively: the claim is not that you ought to avoid sentences like 2 above; the claim is that all speakers have a natural instinctive aversion to syntactic structures of this sort.

But is that true?

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Whom loves ya?

What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.

Wired magazine has published (just in time for Valentine's Day) a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.

This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!

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Preaching the incontrovertible to the unconvertible

I guess that if doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, it is insane for me to imagine that I could do any good by telling the readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education that the rule banning which from restrictive relative clauses is "a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups." But that's what I do in the post published at one minute past midnight on the 71st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. "A Rule Which Will Live in Infamy," I called it. I blame Stan Carey for infecting me with my false optimism about changing people's minds: on his blog "Sentence first" last year he actually reported getting some traction: according to a Twitter message he saw, he actually converted an editor.

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In response to a recent burst of postings, on several blogs, on which vs. that as relativizers and on restrictive vs. non-restrictive relative clauses, an inventory of Language Log postings, plus a few others, on my blog.

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Check all boxes

What a complete disaster the which/that rule (the one saying you're not allowed to use which to begin a restrictive relative clause) actually turns out to be in the lives of American users of English. It instils fear in them lest they be found to be doing something wrong; they tremble at the thought of what a writing tutor might say about their writing, and cower before their word processors; but it doesn't help them, it just ruins their lives.

If you type "Check all boxes which apply to what you are looking for" into a Microsoft Word file it will be identified as a grammar error (the version I verified this on was Word 2008 for Mac 12.3.1). The highest-ranked proposed correction that Word will give you (insertion of a comma) turns it into what appears in the Help box for the Additional Information section when you are trying to enter a Home Wanted posting at Sabbatical Homes:

Additional Information: Check all boxes,
which apply to what you are looking for.

What a grammar disaster.

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That which doesn't apply to English

A (not particularly amusing) cartoon in the July 5 New Yorker has a doctor giving a bedridden patient some food on a tray and saying: "That which doesn't kill you might give you stomach trouble."

The only reason I mention it here is that its oddly stilted wording (why not say "What doesn't kill you"?) provides an example of a case where the much-fetishized but illegitimate rule about never using which to begin an integrated relative clause is obligatorily broken: not even a New Yorker copy editor would "correct" that which doesn't kill you *that that doesn't kill you.

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Oddly enough, McArdle did not err

David Russinoff suggests to me that I should think again about the following two sentences, which featured in this recent post of mine on an apparent writing error by Megan McArdle:

  1. Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.
  2. Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews that suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

Russinoff draws attention to the initial adjunct oddly enough, which I had been ignoring. He remarks:

You say that the second is correct and the first is not; I say you're wrong on both counts. Don't you see? It's the "oddly enough" that does you in. The intention of the first sentence is first to report that a health blog has an entry on performance reviews, a circumstance that the reporter thinks odd. The content of the entry is then included as additional information. It's true that the sentence is ambiguous, i.e., it can be interpreted as intended or otherwise (only bacause we can't agree that a relative pronoun should have an antecedent), but that doesn't make it ungrammatical. The second sentence is unambigous but incorrect insofar as it can't possibly be interpreted as intended, unless you really want to insist that it is not merely the appearance of an entry on this subject on a health blog that is considered odd, but rather the position taken in that entry.

And you know, oddly enough, having ruminated on the data again, I've decided he is right.

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One comma too many

Jonathan Falk did a double-take, and quite rightly, when he saw this opening sentence in a recent article by Megan McArdle in the Business section of The Atlantic:

Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

Unh? They're saying that the mere fact of the New York Times health blog having an item on performance reviews makes performance reviews ipso facto a bad idea? Could they possibly think that?

Finally the penny dropped, and he realized he was supposed to take the relative clause as restrictive. Under the intended sense, what suggests performance reviews are a bad idea is not the fact of the New York Times health blog having published the item; it is the content of the item.

What has gone wrong with McArdle's writing here? Could the initial misunderstanding be some kind of vindication of the purported that/which rule so beloved of the Fowler brothers?

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An HR bureaucrat, whom cannot write

When I give lectures on why you should not listen to prescriptivists' dimwitted prattle about the wrongness of constructions that are fully grammatical and always were, people sometimes ask me what I would regard as bad grammar, as if such cases were going to be hard to find. So occasionally I note down striking cases of failure to get English syntax right (especially written English, naturally enough), and discuss them here.

A friend (don't make me say who) with a middle-rank managerial position in a large bureaucratic organization (don't make me say which) recently received a memo informing him about which of his recommendations for staff promotions and pay increases had been successful, and part of it said:

…it is strongly recommended that you meet with staff, whom have been unsuccessful, in order to provide support after their receiving the disappointing news.

That's a rather astonishing ungrammatical case of whom, used without a shred of justification as subject of a tensed verb to which it is immediately adjacent; but also a crashingly salient case of punctuating a restrictive relative incorrectly. And the email version of the memo, amazingly, was even worse.

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Where evidence counts for nothing and nobody will listen

You just can't stop people putting themselves in harm's way. If they're not walking into the buzzsaw they're crashing like bugs into the windshield… As the previously referenced discussion about usage in The Guardian's online pages developed a bit further, a commenter called scherfig responded to Steve Jones's devastating piece of evidence about Mark Twain not obeying Fowler's which/that rule by saying this:

OK, steve, let's forget Mark Twain and Fowler (old hat) and take a giant leap forward to George Orwell in the 30's and 40's. In my opinion, in his essays, the finest writer of the English language ever . Check out his use of English – it is, after all, several decades after Twain and still 70 years ago, and he has actually written sensibly about language (quite a lot).

What Steve immediately did, of course, was to take a relevant piece of Orwell's work and look at it; scherfig, the Orwell fan, astonishingly, had been too lazy to do this. And again his result was total and almost instant annihilation of the opponent.

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Walking into a buzzsaw

Michael Bulley made a profoundly incautious comment in a discussion in the Guardian newspaper's "Comment is free" online section today. He was following up a pathetic column on usage by the paper's style guide editor, David Marsh. Unsurprisingly, Marsh had attempted to defend the totally fake whichthat rule for integrated (or ‘defining’) relative clauses, which we have so often critiqued here at Language Log. Wrote Bulley, rather pompously:

No one would deny that there are numerous examples of "which" introducing a relative clause that defines (if they weren't any, no one would object to them as being bad style!), but are you just going to say to someone "This is what lots of people do, so it's OK for you to do it as well"? I'm reading Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. I haven't checked, but I'd bet he never uses "which" as a defining relative.

Oh, no! It was like watching someone walking backwards toward a buzzsaw. I could hardly bear to look. You don't say things like that in the age of We-Can-Fact-Check-Your-Ass!

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