A syntax quiz for our regular readers

« previous post | next post »

In today's lead story in the New York Times ("Breakthrough Reached in Negotiations on Bailout"), John McCain is quoted as saying on ABC's "This Week":

This is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with.

Over four years ago, fellow Language Logger Philip Resnik spotted a similar-looking sentence and identified it as an instance of what is called a "parasitic gap" construction — but Philip later took this identification back based on some friendly input from Jon Nissenbaum, who supplied additional evidence pointing to the conclusion that Philip's example "is an instance of across-the-board movement, coupled with right node raising out of a coordinate structure, rather than a parasitic gap".

Got that? Good. Now, today's quiz: is McCain's sentence quoted above a parasitic gap, or an instance of across-the-board movement, coupled with right node raising out of a coordinate structure? If you think you know, post your answer (with details of your evidence for that answer) as a comment. The first to post the correct answer with appopriate evidence (as judged by me, natch) will receive a free year's subscription to Language Log — a better prize you won't find without searching far and wide for!


  1. Julia Hockenmaier said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    It's a RNR+ATB construction because the 'something'_i that ('swallow' takes [t_i] as an object) and ('go forward with' also takes [t_i] as an argument)) has been extracted. It's not a parasitic gap because 'something' is a shared argument that (the speaker extracted [t_i] (without simultaneoulsy subordinating [t_i] )).

  2. Kai von Fintel said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

    Hi Eric, I'm not a syntactician, so I'm allowed to enter these sweepstakes. I think the example fits neither of your choices. Nothing is extracted from the first conjunct. We say "all of us will swallow hard and go forward with it". It's the object of "with" that's been extracted. So, this is a violation of the Coordinate Structure Constraint. You asked the kind of trick question we should never put on a final exam without a warning to students. And next time, both phonologists like you and semanticists like me should leave that syntax stuff alone. What do we know?

  3. KCinDC said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

    Julia, "swallow" is intransitive in that sentence, just as if it had been "smile and go forward with".

  4. Jangari said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

    "swallow" is intransitive in that sentence

    I don't know how you came to the conclusion that 'swallow' here is intransitive. Take the subordinate clause to expand as 'all of us will swallow (this) hard and go forward with (this)'.

    On the basis of that, it looks a lot like a parasitic gap, but the different syntactic frames of the phrasal verbs 'swallow hard' and 'go forward with' make it a bit of a pain to analyse before breakfast. Also, I have no idea what you mean by 'across-the-board movement, coupled with right node raising out of a coordinate structure', so I'll stick with parasitic gap.

    Sorry, I have no evidence for this.

  5. Julia Hockenmaier said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

    ah, yes, of course! — but then it's neither of Erik's constructions.

  6. N said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

    I'm iffy on the "go forward with" because I often hear from business-types the phrase "going forward" sentence-finally meaning 'in the future' (e.g., We'll reinvest the dividends going forward.). But:

    (1) This is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with.
    (1') [We] will swallow ____ hard[,] and go forward with [the swallowing of ____].

    I get the impression that swallow and go forward with take different arguments — "swallow" takes 'something' while "go forward with" takes its preceding sentence. So two different gaps? Or a stress-induced production difficulty.

  7. Troy S. said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

    I think it's perfectly valid to interpret "swallow hard" as an intransitive
    phrase. I see where the temptation is to make it transitive, especially because of the similar expression "hard to swallow." However, all of us could just as easily be taking a "hard swallow" due to the anxiety the situation causes. If there's need for a direct object, it's the implicit lump in our throats caused by that anxiety.

  8. Rawley Grau said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    I don't see any syntactical difference between McCain's sentence and say, "This is the knife John bought and killed Moe with." But then I read "swallow" as basically transitive here, from the well-known expression: "You just gotta swallow it and move on," though I suspect there is some interference from the intransitive use, as in: "I swallowed hard and said nothing", which has produced the adverb "hard". Usually, "to swallow hard" means "to gulp down saliva." McCain is confusing, or blending, this use with the expression, "to swallow something unpleasant." And I suspect there is also a third swallow fluttering in the rafters of his mind: "to swallow one's pride".

  9. N said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

    I think that the valency of swallow hard is ambiguous, whether it's X [[swallows Y] hard] or X [swallows hard]. So we have an additional problem.

  10. pogonisby said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

    This is kinky.

  11. John Lawler said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

    Clearly, this is ambiguous.

    Swallow hard can be interpreted either transitively (in which case it's a parasitic gap) or intransitively (in which case it's across-the-board movement, an exception to Ross's Coordinate Structure Constraint).

    If, on the one hand, you believe he's saying that 'all of us' will swallow the plan and move forward with the (same) plan, then it's the former.

    If, on the other hand, you believe he's saying that 'all of us' will swallow hard (more or less swallow whatever's in our craw, unspecified) and then move forward with the plan, then it's the latter.

    This reminds me of the distinction between the two senses of the shooting of the hunters.

    If, on the one hand, you believe that shoot is transitive here, then the shooting of the hunters means that some hunters got shot (shooters unspecified).

    If, on the other hand, you believe that it's intransitive, then it means that some hunters did some shooting, targets unspecified.

    All of this is due to the fact that the English construction the V-ing of the NP is in fact an ergative construction, and takes the Absolutive [Direct Object of a transitive or Subject of an intranstive] for the NP.

  12. Mike Maxwell said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

    "Swallow" is pretty clearly intransitive here, as proven by my scientific survey using Wikipedia. (Meaning I looked at the first ten hits and threw out the ones that didn't pertain, plus one that was this quote from McCain; the six or so remaining hits were all intransitive uses of "swallow hard", with no transitive uses.)

    Which, as Julia Hockenmaier points out, means that it's neither construction.

    As for McCain being confused (Rawley Grau's comment), I don't see any confusion, just a somewhat awkward statement. In particular, I would not use "swallow hard" to literally mean swallowing saliva or even swallowing something unpleasant–I would use it to mean something like "ignore my fears and hope for the best".

  13. Trent said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

    As my comment will make clear, I'm not a linguist.

    Perhaps it's a mixed metaphor.

    To fix it while retaining its structure, we could write,

    "This is something that all of us will swallow hard and pass."

    Not a pretty image.

    This reading assumes that the "this" is swallowed. But as others say, we generally use "swallow hard" as synonymous with "gulp." However, we "go forward with" "this" (the bailout), which would seem to indicate that we also swallow "this" — and we're back to the mixed metaphor. The sentence is a steaming pile.

    Sorry for intruding with a non-linguistic comment. I just couldn't pass.

  14. onosson said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

    Hmmmm… I thought about this a bit, but I don't think it's actually ambiguous, at least not in my dialect.

    I can't say transitive *"swallow it hard", just intransitive "swallow hard". The word "hard" is the key.

    This leads me to believe that it's a coordinate structure, not a parasitic gap.

  15. onosson said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

    Apologies to Mike Maxwell – I didn't reload the page before commenting to see that you had already posted that it's clearly intransitive.

  16. Neal Whitman said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 11:31 pm

    What Kai said.
    Nice attestation; I'm adding it to my collection of non-ATB extractions from coordinations.

  17. William Idsardi said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

    Phil's last name is spelled "Resnik".


    And my name's spelled "Eric". It's fixed — thanks, Bill.

  18. Jangari said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 2:53 am

    Far out, I completely missed that interpretation. Odd, since my dialect wouldn't even collocate 'swallow' with 'hard' anyway; I'd just assumed it was an americanism as common as 'eggs over easy' or something.

    The interpretation of 'swallow hard' as intransitive then, is quite easy, as only the object of 'go forward with' has been elided. But this is pretty much what John Lawler just said.

    We will have to swallow hard and go forward with [this]

    If parallel with:

    We will have to work hard and beat this

    is absolutely fine, though syntactically uninteresting.

  19. Timothy Martin said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 4:58 am

    Well after some time of googling explanations and examples on these two constructions, I think I might have a handle on it…

    It's an RNR construction, because "swallow [it] hard and go forward with [it]" is a coordinate structure. You can break it down into two conjuncts, "swallow it hard" and "go forward with it." When written this way, there are identical constituents (the arguments of the verbs; the "it" or the "something") in each conjunct. However, in the original sentence, the first occurrence of this constituent is absent, and that's pretty much the definition (from what I can glean) of an RNR construction. The only thing odd about it is that the "it" isn't the rightmost conjunct of the conjoined sentences (I assume that's where the term "right" node raising comes from), since "swallow hard it" isn't grammatical, making the non-RNR'd version "swallow it hard."

    This sentence would be an example of a parasitic gap if, instead of "swallow hard" and "go forward with" being coordinated, "go forward with" were subordinate to "swallow hard", as in a sentence like "this is something that all of us will swallow hard before going forward with."

    The difference between RNR and a parasitic gap is also demonstrated by the following fact: You can change "this is something that all of us will swallow hard before going forward with" to "this is something that all of us will swallow hard before going forward with the investigation" (thus making the argument of "swallow" -> "something", but the argument of "go forward with" -> "the investigation"). However, you can't change "this is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with" to "this is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with the investigation."

    And I think that explains it?

    Personally though, I think McCain was actually going for the intransitive meaning of "swallow". He probably wanted to say something like "This is something (a situation) where we will have to just swallow hard and go forward with the plan", but the word "that" came out instead of "where", thus dooming his sentence to saying something different than what he intended. I'll save the argument for why I think that's the case, since that's not what this post is about, but I just wanted to put my 2 cents in. :)

  20. Edward Vitasek said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 8:02 am

    How about this:

    "We will all swallow hard with this" + "We will all go forward with this."

    So we have:

    something that all of us will [[swallow hard] and [go forward]] with ___.

    "Swallow hard" and "go forward" would be co-ordinated with "with", where "with" does double duty, once introducing an adjunct and once a verbal complement (wtf co-ordination).

    Perhaps, the co-ordination is easier to spot if you reverse the co-ordinated VPs, as the "swallow-with", introducing an adjunct, is optional, and people might miss there is a co-ordination at all. So:

    "something that all of us will go forward and swallow hard with"

    (The question is whether people would actually say "swallow hard with sth" in this context. It sounds a bit odd to me. I think I'd use "at", whereas I'd use "with" in a sentence like "I swallowed hard with indignation." I'm not sure my idea, here, is plausible.)

  21. Mark F. said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 8:43 am

    I'm puzzled that so many people see "swallow" here as being transitive. "Swallow hard" is an expression meaning to steel oneself to do something that one is afraid to do. It alludes to the notion that one often gulps in such a situation. McCain was not talking about swallowing something in particular.

  22. Rod Whiteley said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 11:35 am

    McCain's statement is not one that I had to think hard and decipher. The term "parasitic gap", however is something that I had to go away and look up. See: and (2b)

  23. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    I am neither a syntactician nor a sin tactician.

  24. Laura K said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    Timothy – if we take "swallow" as transitive here, your explanation is correct once you replace "ATB" with "RNR". I don't think there's any RNR going on here… that would imply that some constituent from within both conjuncts has raised to the right, which is not the case. What is happening is ATB movement of "this" out of both conjuncts.

  25. Timothy Martin said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

    @Mark F: I agree that "swallow" is being used intransitively, but in order for a parasitic gap or an RNR construction to exist, both of the verbs involved have to have arguments (assuming I understand this correctly). So within the parameters of the question posed by Eric, "swallow" has to be transitive.

  26. Eric Baković said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    That was way harsh, Kai. (Gratuitous Clueless reference brought to you by Syntax Made Easy.)

    OK, fine, swallow hard is intransitive, as so many of you noted (again and again). I tried to trick you. Good thing this wasn't a final exam, or Kai would apparently have some even harsher words for me.

    Still, I hope everyone had fun with it, and that some folks learned a thing or two about verb valency, parasitic gapping, and so forth.

  27. Timothy Martin said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    @Laura K: Ok, thanks. I couldn't find much on ATB online, and the options were "a parasitic gap, or an instance of across-the-board movement, coupled with right node raising out of a coordinate structure", so I went with the latter and ignored the third term that I didn't really understand ;)

    And now apparently there was actually a third option – "none of the above."
    Since so many people got it right and said that "swallow" is intransitive, do we all get the prize? It's only right.

  28. Kai von Fintel said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

    You're a big boy, Eric. I knew you could take it.

  29. Laura Kalin said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

    Hmm… wait, I disagree with Kai. Eric, don't concede defeat, yet! Phonologists don't get enough credit as is.

    McCain begins "This is something that…", which sets the stage for a relative clause. All relative clauses contain a gap/trace that is co-referent with the head noun. It would be perfectly grammatical to say "This is something that all of us will swallow hard". It follows that there MUST be a gap, as this is a relative clause, and the only place for the gap to go is as the complement of "swallow". So, "swallow" is transitive in McCain's quote.

    Extending this to the full quote, there are indeed two gaps: "This is something that all of us will swallow ___ hard and go forward with ___", making this a case of ATB (with no RNR).

  30. onosson said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    I wouldn't interpret "This is something that all of us will swallow hard" to be a relative clause, but perhaps a topicalization? Once the "go forward with" is added, then I can see that as a relative clause, but it could go either way.

  31. Karen said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 5:54 am

    Well, I think that swallow hard is intransitive – the hard means (for me) it can't be otherwise) and so the unfocused version is "We will have to swallow hard and go forward with this". He's just pulled the "this" up and topicalized it while keeping "swallow hard and go forward" as a sort of collocation.

  32. Alexandra Galibert said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    I think that what John Lawler said is perfectly right, but I need to add something to that. Here we can't speak of a parasitic gap, because the gap at the end of the sentence "This is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with____" is not parasitic on a previous gap, because there isn’t any! I have to explain this: if we consider that “swallow hard” is intransitive (as opposed to “hard to swallow”, transitive), McCain just cannot say "This is something that all of us will swallow hard", I think he simply got mixed up here. A correct sentence would have been "All of us will swallow hard and we will have to go forward with this". So the question of whether this is a parasitic gap or an instance of across-the-board movement, coupled with right node raising out of a coordinate structure simply doesn’t have to be asked! But if we have to choose an option I’ll go for the across-the-board movement.

RSS feed for comments on this post