Rudy off the island (constraint)?

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Nick Rossoll, "Giuliani Says Trump Better For US 'Than a Woman'", ABC News 10/2/2016:

Speaking of reports that Donald Trump claimed a $916 million loss on his 1995 income taxes, Giuliani said: "Don't you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman, and the only thing she's ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?"

Rudy Giuliani has gotten a fair amount of flack for this comment, partly for describing losing $916 million as "economic genius", and partly for (apparently) saying that "a man … is a lot better for the United States than a woman". But John Cowan thinks that the second criticism is unfair, and Rudy is only guilty of stumbling into a syntactic "island violation" and getting out of it in an awkward way.

John wrote:

I believe that the current media charge damning Giuliani as a sexist based on his statement "Don't you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman, and the only thing she's ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?" is based on a linguistic misunderstanding. (I didn't vote for him or support him, but I don't like seeing people blamed for what is not really their fault.)

I think that Giuliani, having decided to formulate parallel NPs of the form "a man/woman" plus a relative clause, found himself stymied when he came to the second half because it is ungrammatical to pull out "she" from the *interior* embedded clause.  So he had the choice of the ungrammatical resumptive pronoun "a woman who the only thing she's ever produced is …", which is probably what I would have said, or changing the relative clause into a full sentence with a conjunction.  That left "a woman" unqualified, leaving the implication that a man with "this kind of economic genius" is better than a woman, any woman, therefore sexism.

The island in question is sometimes called the "complex NP constraint", because the logical location of the relative pronoun is buried inside a relative clause:

. . . a woman who the only thing __ has ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI . . .

As John observed, that version is ungrammatical, but could be rescued to some extent with a "resumptive pronoun":

. . . a woman who the only thing she has ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI . . .

Instead, Giuliani chose a more paratactic option, splitting the relative clause off as a conjoined phrase:

. . . a woman, and the only thing she's ever produced uh is a lot of work for the FBI . . .

I'm not sure — what do you think?

And by the way, it's all too typical of journalistic quotes that ABC news can't even get the transcription right — Giuliani clearly says "email", not "emails". It doesn't change the meaning in a material way, but why be so sloppy?

 



27 Comments

  1. GeorgeW said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    Okay, but it wasn't necessary to use genders 'man/woman' to begin with. He could have said a "a candidate who . . .," "someone who . . .,""a person who," etc.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 4:15 pm

    A way off the island without flak was "…a woman who has never produced anything but…" or maybe less effectively, "a woman who has only ever produced…" But we don't always come up with such things.

    I really can't tell whether Giuliani was suggesting that a man is better than a woman. His pause there seems to be like other pauses in the sentence where he's probably just arranging the words. I would think a politician with a syntactic censor that prevents "a woman who the only thing has ever produced is a lot of work" would have a semantic censor that prevents "a man is better than a woman", but people make all kinds of slips.

  3. Gwen Katz said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

    Freudian slip?

  4. Paul Kay said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 5:23 pm

    I have negative respect for Giuliani, but I agree with John Cowan on what was probably going on in his producing this utterance. At least, I had the same take at the time: caught in an island violation trap and, for whatever reason, unprepared to take the resumptive pronoun route.

  5. Alan Gunn said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    Losing $916 million in the tax sense is not at all the same thing as losing $916 million, or perhaps anything at all, in an economic sense. Real estate tends to generate tax losses that have no connection to economic realities. This isn't to say, of course, that Giuliani is right; there are good reasons to think that Trump is not nearly as successful as he claims to be, But reporting a huge tax loss isn't evidence of failure.

  6. Ellen Kozisek said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 6:14 pm

    Yeah, although when I first got to "woman" it sounded sexist, reading on, it sounds likely one statement, not saying he's better than a woman, whoever the woman. Although, that still leaves a question of whether her femaleness is part of why Giuliani thinks Trump is better, or is incidental.

  7. Y said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

    Listening to the recording and noting the prosody, I can't see parsing this any other way than, "Don't you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman? And the only thing she's ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?"

    There's the rising intonation on "a woman", the pause after it, and the low pitch on "And the", which sounds perfectly sentence-initial.

    All I have to counter it is that I can't imagine anyone who's served as a politician in the US in the past 50 years saying anything so plainly and strongly sexist. I can't even imagine Trump saying this at his most unguarded.

  8. Paul Kay said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 7:05 pm

    A non-linguistic consideration that might be taken to support John Cowan's theory that Giuliani's utterance was not intended to deprecate the intelligence of women is that even if Giuliani is misguided enough to think such things, he's probably not stupid enough to assert them.

  9. John Laviolette said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

    How does this compare to using contrasting examples in a "versus" construction? Such as:

    "Don't you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States, versus a woman, who has only produced a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?"

    It requires a few more changes than the resumptive pronoun, but on the other hand I hear this kind of structure all the time and thought it was fairly common, and thus might have been Giulliani's first choice. But it wasn't. Is it just not as common as I perceive?

  10. ryan said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 10:02 pm

    Re, the versus construction, I think the problem for Giuliani is that the most important part to him of what he said is that the emails are "the only thing" she has ever produced. But as long as you lead with "who the only thing …" you'll be hamstrung whether you go with "than" or "versus."

  11. Tim Martin said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    I hate extraction islands! They routinely piss me off in conversation – both when I stumble into one myself and can't get out, and also when people use (what are to my ear) ungrammatical ways of dealing with them, such as the use of a resumptive pronoun in the above example. Although fixes like this do seem to be grammatical to some people, because I hear them often in conversation and people don't usually act like they've made a mistake.

    Anyway, as far as Guiliani goes, I thought he made his mistake in a very opaque way. His intonation doesn't convince me that he was trying to make a relative clause, and I would have expected him to at least say "a woman who-" before cutting himself off and trying a different sentence structure. But, it's even more improbable that he would say that a man is better than a woman, so I'd say he probably tried to make a relative clause and failed.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 10:39 pm

    John Laviolette: I think people combine comparatives with "versus", "compared to", and other alternatives to "than" all the time. But that's just because it's one of my pet peeves. I have the repugnancy illusion.

  13. Usually Dainichi said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 12:08 am

    Not a native speaker, but two options that seem borderline grammatical to me (or at least comparable to the other imperfect options) are:

    … a woman where the only thing she's ever produced is …
    … a woman with the only thing she's ever produced being …

    Just wanted to throw them out there to see what others would say.

  14. Philip said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 2:15 am

    … than a woman whose sole production has been a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails.

    Island avoided?

  15. Michael Watts said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 5:08 am

    when people use (what are to my ear) ungrammatical ways of dealing with them, such as the use of a resumptive pronoun in the above example. Although fixes like this do seem to be grammatical to some people, because I hear them often in conversation and people don't usually act like they've made a mistake.

    I've seen this construction ("a woman who the only thing she's ever produced…") referred to as a "gapless relative", and I produce them every so often despite the fact that I internally sense that they are ungrammatical because sometimes there just doesn't seem to be another way to express the idea. I doubt you'd notice my discomfort on producing one; what sort of indication of "I've made a mistake" are you expecting to see? I'm not likely to correct myself, because I don't think there's any risk of a gapless relative clause being misunderstood regardless of its grammaticality.

    It doesn't seem like a big step from a generation that behaves like me to a generation that thinks gapless relatives are grammatical, though.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 6:23 am

    I think the pitch on "a woman" isn't high enough to end the sentence as a question; more importantly, the pauses around "a woman, and the only thing she's ever produced" are much longer than the one within.

    Doesn't mean Giuliani doesn't consider gender to be part of the qualifications for president, but this quote in isolation doesn't tell us that, or me anyway.

    German appears to have a dedicated exit strategy for such islands, but there's really no good way to render it in English: eine Frau, bei der das Einzige, das sie je produziert hat, – literally "a woman ?at? whom the only thing (that) she's ever produced"…

  17. Rodger C said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    I'd go immediately to "a woman to where that …", but my WV linguistic instincts are notoriously unreliable as a guide to intelligibility in the wider Anglosphere.

  18. Gabe Burns said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 8:39 am

    Why not "A woman who's only ever produced…" ?

  19. Tim Martin said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 8:49 am

    Michael Watts: Ah, those are called gapless relatives? Good to know; that's the construction I hear a lot.

    I guess the "indication that someone's made a mistake" that I'd be looking for would be a bit of hesitation while uttering the sentence. Personally I usually make some kind of overt comment about it because I really hate gapless relatives even when they're necessary. But you're right, most people probably don't do this.

    I think I have asked a few people about a gapless relative after they've used one, and some of them didn't feel that what they'd said was weird or ungrammatical. But that was a while ago, so now I'm inspired to do a bit more research.

    Usually Dainichi: I would say that both of those work, but are somewhat awkward. "Where" is often used to get around gapless relatives in English this days, but there are places where it works better than others. To my ear, yours is stretching it. But it certainly gets the job done.

    I think a grammatical, non-awkward phrasing that most accurately represents what Guiliani ended up saying is, "…a woman who's never produced anything more than…"

    This is similar to what Jerry Friedman posted in his first comment.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    Perhaps the safe practice to follow (if one wishes to avoid accusations of sexism in the context of a political campaign where the usual Gricean assumptions that everyone involved in a conversation is expected to try hard to give each other's often subtoptimal phrasing a charitable and reasonable construction are suspended) is: a) use wording referring to the detail that candidate A is female and candidate B is male only if saying something positive about candidate A or negative about candidate B; but b) when contrasting A unfavorably to B use ungendered words like "candidate" instead. To put the point more generally, lots of traditional forms of phrasing in English do tend to mention in passing the sex of the persons involved in the situation being described even when their sex is not directly salient to the point being made, but the objection that someone's sex is being mentioned when not salient is probably (for understandable historical reasons) substantially more likely to be raised when the unnecessarily-referred-to sex of the person the sentence depicts in a bad light is female.

  21. Rosie Redfield said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    Both Giuliani and Trump appear to be trying to use the word 'woman' in every sentence that refers to Clinton. The really scary thing is that this is probably very effective.

  22. David Marjanović said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 7:08 pm

    I think they're not even trying: it's so salient to them that they can't help mentioning it all the time.

  23. Philip said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

    Did anyone read my first comment?

  24. Tim Martin said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

    You avoided the island! (^_^)b

  25. tpr said,

    October 6, 2016 @ 5:39 am

    GeorgeW said:

    Okay, but it wasn't necessary to use genders 'man/woman' to begin with. He could have said a "a candidate who . . .," "someone who . . .,""a person who," etc.

    It also wouldn't be necessary to refer to them as candidates since we already know that about them, or even that they're people, since we already know that too. Whichever noun the speaker chose to refer to them, some unnecessary information had to come along for the ride.

    The use of 'man' and 'woman' over more general or more specific category descriptors probably has more to do with a cognitive bias towards basic level categories than any particular preoccupation with gender in most cases.

  26. ardj said,

    October 6, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    Relatively unused as I am to US accents, it is clear that the first part ends, starting at 'a', with a rising, i.e. questioning, intonation. If he had stopped at that point, there would be no doubt about the meaningless and sexist abuse. The second part, after another brief pause, sounds to me as if he was thinking how to add something – but not to rescue his grammar or even the original statement, but how to add something else abusive: and this desire to go on led him into the grammatical thicket (or carried him over onto the island, if you prefer).

    It may not even have been what he really wished to say, that can happen to any of us, but it is undoubtedly what he said.

    John Cowan seems to me wrong, both in interpreting the sentence and in what he would propose:

    a) Mark Liberman's suggestion for Cowan :"… a woman who the only thing she's ever produced is … " leaves the dangling "who" which never acquires a verb or anything else, merely making a vague gesture at relativizing the clause. To my English ears, at least, this is ungrammatical. Even trying desperate measures such as "from whom" doesn't work.

    b) Cowan's suggestion of a separate sentence presupposing parallel NPs PLUS a relative clause leaves me wondering what he has in mind.: " a man who … than a woman who has only ever produced a lot of work for the FBI …" is a perfectly possible formulation, but I cannot see what to put in a separate sentence., and why only one relative clause ? Unless Cowan will accept the misogyny and write (with two relative clauses):

    "Don't you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman? Don't you think a man (sc. any man) is better than a woman who has only ever produced a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?"

    No, what Giulani said was what he meant. Jerry Friedman's reformulations work, but the evidence of intonation is against them.

  27. Phil Ramsden said,

    October 7, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

    It's off the point, but: flak. From Fliegerabwehrkanone. No c.

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