Do just that

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According to the first sentence of an AP story dated 5/28/2009:

Craigslist has withdrawn its request to block South Carolina's attorney general from pursuing prostitution-related charges against the company, following the prosecutor's agreement to do just that.

Do just what?

We learn the answer two sentences later — what the AG agreed to do was *not* pursue prostitution-related charges against the company:

And in a related matter, a filing deadline has been set in the company's federal lawsuit against the state's top prosecutor.

The company decided to drop its request after Attorney General Henry McMaster agreed not to pursue criminal charges while the company's federal lawsuit goes forward, rendering moot their motion for a temporary restraining order.

Usually the demonstrative pronoun that of "do just that" refers to (the referent of) some previous verb phrase or nominalization:

Snell's exit after six innings left the Pirates' bullpen with the task of holding down a lineup sans Carlos Delgado, Beltran and Reyes, all of whom are nursing injuries or illness. Four Pirates relievers, including Steven Jackson, who made a scoreless one-inning Major League debut, did just that.

Even if it meant climbing out of the losers' bracket and claiming three games over the next two days, Graham believed his veteran team had the gumption to do just that.

It's only two games, but Joyce certainly looks ready to stick around and his manager indicated he'd like to see the Armwood High product do just that.

Despite its massive success, DJ Skee didn't really have a plan laid out when was birthed. He just felt he should take advantage of the access he has to celebs on a regular basis, and did just that.

Hankamer and Sag ("Deep and Surface Anaphora", Linguistic Inquiry 7(3): 391-426) made a distinction between "syntactically controlled" and "pragmatically controlled" anaphora. One of the classic contrasts involves a situation where individuals A and B see C trying to tear a phone book in half, and A says to B (without any prior verbal context):

I don't think he can do it.
I don't think he can do that.
*I don't think he can do so.

Thus it and that can be "pragmatically controlled", i.e. can refer to some salient aspect of the non-linguistic context, whereas so must be "syntactically controlled", i.e. must have an explicit linguistic antecedent.

But apparently the demonstrative pronoun that in "do just that" is more like the so of "do so". Or is the first sentence of that AP article just confusing, but not actually ungrammatical?

[Hat tip to Charles Belov.]


  1. greg said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    I understood the sentence at first reading and I think it's because I read it as though the author was trying to point the "that" at the verb "withdrawn". So that it would read, "Craigslist has withdrawn its request to block South Carolina's attorney general from pursuing prostitution-related charges against the company, following the prosecutor's agreement to [withdraw their charges].

  2. Mark P said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    I understood the sentence, but it was because I did a lot of the writer's work. And the editor's work, too.

  3. Terry Collmann said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    I would agree that "do just that" must reference something specifically mentioned earlier. There are only two things the "to do just that" in the sentence can be pointing to, "withdraw(n) its request to block" and "pursu(ing)e prostitution-related charges". Since "to do just that" is closer to "pursu(ing)e prostitution-related charges", the normal response would be that the prosecutor "do(ing) just that" means they WILL be pursuing prostitution-related charges, the opposite of what is meant. "… to not do that" would have been better, though still not perfect.

    I see a sentence reading "Craigslist has withdrawn its request to force South Carolina's attorney general to pursue prostitution-related charges against the company, following the prosecutor's agreement to do just that" as working reasonably well (though still not perfectly), where the "do just that" is specifically referencing something earlier. So yes, the original sentence is ungrammatical.

  4. Karen said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    I too read it as the prosecutor WILL BE pursuing charges, which made the sentence nonsensical to me. It still is – I can't make "do just that" mean what they want it to: there's no negative anywhere.

  5. Brett said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    I found the statement completely incomprehensible on first reading. I suspect this has something to do with being from South Carolina and knowing about the case, which has had some rather complicated legal maneuvers and counter-maneuvers and has become entwined with similar cases in other jurisdictions. I expected that such an oddly written sentence must have been composed in order to provide an accurate description of which moves by one side were in response to which moves by the other, which can be tricky to disentangle.

    I showed the sentence to my wife, and she had much the same confusion, although she, like I, figured out what it must mean. (If the sentence had concerned the other major legal case in the news here in South Carolina—the much more important and much more complicated dispute between our governor and legislature over stimulus funds—I might not have been able to piece together the correct meaning at all.) And even on the second reading, it really felt like it should be read in the manner Karen suggests, though I knew what the correct reading ought to be.

  6. Nassira Nicola said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    I get the same reading as Karen, too, but with one caveat: there *is* a negative there, sort of, that can make the whole thing mean what it obviously needs to mean.

    If "do just that" refers to blocking the prosecution (i.e. the negative act of not-prosecuting), then the outcome is correct: Craigslist dropped its request to block the prosecution because the prosecutors agreed to block it themselves.

    Poorly written? Absolutely. More work than any reader should ever be expected to do to extract (or coerce) an appropriate interpretation? Undoubtedly. A completely unrecoverable referent? Maybe not.

  7. Ellen K. said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    On first reading, I didn't find it confusing, nor ungrammatical.

    I guess I took "do just that" as referring to the idea of not pursuing charges. Thus the sentence made sense. My thought was, okay, so, they asked them not to do something, that they said they aren't doing anyway.

    Reading it again after reading the "Do just what?" question (the answer to which had been clear to me), I can see what's wrong with the sentence. It looks to me like it can easily be understood as the opposite of what was meant, and indeed other people have attested to reading it that way.

    I don't see it as ungrammatical, just bad writing. And perhaps bad luck as far as who the editor was. Or a lack of an editor going over it. (As in, just as I didn't see a problem with it until clued in, the editor, didn't see a problem, but also didn't have someone else's reaction to clue them into that there is one.)

  8. Mark F. said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    In my intuition, "do just that" is like "do so", not "do it" or "do that". Under that constraint, either "do just that" refers to blocking the attorney general from pursuing charges, or it refers to pursuing charges. Neither one is exactly what was meant.

    Is a sentence ungrammatical if it means something different from what's intended when interpreted according to the relevant grammar?

  9. Nassira Nicola said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    Mark F. – yup, a sentence can be (un)grammatical for a particular reading.

    I think one thing that complicates matters here is the switch in the agent of the verb "block (prosecution)." When Craigslist is blocking prosecution, or at least requesting that a court do so, the interpretation is conventional and clear; when the prosecutor is doing so, it becomes a little more odd. Prosecutors don't block prosecutions (any more than agents in general usually block their own actions) – they interrupt them, halt them, withdraw them, give up on them, postpone them, etc.

    This extra sematic step is easy enough to overlook when you're writing the tail-end of a long sentence, bits of which you've probably altered a number of times, and you know perfectly well what happened in the events you're describing even if you're not 100% sure how you started off the sentence in which you're describing them. As a reader without that context, however, reading straight through in a matter of seconds, it can be murder reconstructing someone else's train of thought.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    June 3, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    It's confusing, but it's also ungrammatical. There are three verbs that "do that" could refer to, and that semantic reasoning might have disambiguated, but it doesn't refer to any of them.

  11. Steve said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    I pretty much guessed what it must mean, but I agree that it is ungrammatical: none of the three verbs that 'do just that' could refer back to give the intended sense. If it refers to 'withdraw' then it has the wrong object: it is the request that has been withdrawn, not the charges.
    If it refers to 'block' then it in the wrong voice: the prosecutor has (if anything) agreed 'to be blocked' – and even that is stretching things, since 'to agree to be blocked' is a thoroughly weird if not totally nonsensical thing to say.
    If it refers to 'pursue' then there is a missing negation: he has agreed not to pursue the charges.
    Quite how the sentence came to be written and then evaded sub-editing is something we will probably never know

  12. Chris said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    I don't think it's ungrammatical, or even ambiguous; it just unambiguously means something nonsensical, forcing the reader to construct and then impose an alternative reading that makes sense.

    "Do just that" clearly refers to "pursuing … charges", right up until the semantic part of your brain catches up with the syntactic part and you realize that it can't.

  13. Ellen said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    No, Chris, it does not "unambiguously mean something nonsensical". You have evidence right here in the thread that that's not the case. Two of us have attested to it making sense to us on the first read. For me, only after rereading did the nonsensical reading come to mind. Just because you only read it one way doesn't make in unambiguous.

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