Some discipline where nobody knows what the hell it is

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As I read the text of Rob Balder's latest PartiallyClips strip, about whether magic is perhaps secretly taught in universities, I experienced a moment of terror over whether linguistics was going to turn up in the third panel. But our discipline dodged the bullet. Check it out.

Rob Balder was in fact an English major, and makes a brutal remark about Communications in the comments below the strip: "Is it a Business degree with the math removed, or an English degree with the soul removed?"

By the way, if I may interpolate a word of syntacticianly nerditude here, that's a lovely piece of colloquial workaround in the last sentence uttered by the female speaker in the strip:

"What if the magic program is magically disguised as some other major? Maybe a useless one where nobody knows what the hell it is."

In that noun phrase a useless one where nobody knows what the hell it is, the where construction is a loose workaround to avoid making a relative clause that has the gap inside an interrogative content clause.

A relative clause like that nobody knows anything about __ would be OK, because the gap merely strands a preposition in a PP complement (I assume that in know NP about NP we have a direct object and a PP complement, not a direct object and an adjunct). But it is ungrammatical (or at least very awkward from a processing point of view) to have the gap inside a constituent that already has a gap because of some different construction. In "nobody knows what the hell it is __" we have an interrogative content clause (what the hell it is) containing a gap where the complement of the copular verb (is) would have been. So if the woman in the conversation had tried to use (say) a that-relative clause she would have come out with this:

a useless one that nobody knows [what the hell __ is __]

— and that has two gaps in the open interrogative content clause (bracketed). Ordinary speakers with no training in syntactic analysis are perfectly capable of sensing that such a phrase would be something of a disaster for processing. So what the woman does is to use where in a loose way that makes it rather like some uses of such that. In a phrase with such that, you don't need a gap: you can say a useless one such that nobody knows what the hell it is. [Actually, you don't even need an anaphoric pronoun in a such that clause. This point was the main focus of an argument that I had with James Higginbotham in 1985: see Linguistic Inquiry 16, 291-298. Hey, listen, I did warn you that this was going to be syntacticianly nerditude, not the usual Language Log chit-chat.] An introductory where can work the same way, as you see in the strip.

So the woman has avoided a nasty syntactic crisis — what she needs ideally is a relative clause that has the gap inside a constituent that also has to contain the gap associated with the interrogative what, but that's forbidden by either syntax or processing constraints. She finesses the problem with a neat deployment of where + Clause. Brilliant. Unconscious syntactic expertise is all around us, every day, in almost every conversation or piece of casual writing.


  1. jim said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 6:47 am

    The late Douglas Adams used this construction on a couple of occasions. There was the "thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is" in the Hitch Hiker's Infocom game, and in The Meaning of Liff, 'Papcastle' is defined as 'something drawn or modelled by a small child which you are supposed to know what it is'.

  2. Hedgie said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 8:53 am

    I think that when I've done this I've used "that" instead of "where". But that does make the 'it' feel funny, and after reading this I think perhaps "where" is a better solution. It seems to me that it's being used not so much in a loose sense as in the same sense it's used in an SQL WHERE clause. In that context, WHERE is exactly "such that".

  3. jim said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 9:03 am

    SELECT thing FROM your aunt gave you WHERE you don't know what it is

  4. AJD said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 9:58 am


    That's a different construction than the one Geoff writes about in this post. Instead of using "where" as a workaround, it uses "which", which is the same as "that" with respect to gaps. That is, for instance, you can say "that nobody knows anything about __" and "which nobody knows anything about __", but not really "where nobody knows anything about __". So the "where" clause used by Balder is a way of avoiding needing to have a gap where you don't want one; the "which" clauses used by Adams don't avoid needing the gap, but they ignore their needs and fill the gap with "it" instead.

    Probably someone who didn't just get out of bed would be able to explain this better than me.

  5. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 10:04 am

    I'm also reminded a little of Homer Simpson's reference to "the dogs with bees in their mouths and when they bark they shoot bees at you."

  6. jim said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 10:17 am

    Right. I get the point now. Clearly I was insufficiently caffeined up at the time, as well. In my example, Adams, as you say, encounters the same problem as Geoff describes in his post, but instead of substituting "where", he just rides right over it and sticks the 'it' in anyway.

    Of course, Douglas Adams was a native speaker with a great linguistic flair, if that's the way to put it. He knew perfectly well that "a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is" would sound odd, and was deliberately exploiting that oddness for humorous effect, in keeping with his deadpan and frequently borderline-surreal style.

  7. these gaps hurt my head said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    – Linguists, there's a lot where I can't talk with about it.

  8. Karen said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    "Audiences won't soon forget when the thing we didn't know what it was was put into the helicopter by the guy we didn't know who he was." – Tom Servo on MST3K commenting on "The Great Spider Invasion"

    Tom Servo certainly didn't finesse those gaps.

  9. That's what she said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    I actually once had to listen to a long discussion about what qualifies as "humanities" with some advisers who were having a dispute over whether some course should qualify as one. All I remember is some fragment of what they said saying that humanities can also be "self and community" … whatever that means.

    Frankly, it would make more sense if they were actually practitioners of the Dark Arts …

  10. Neal Whitman said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    A not-too-awkward example from the Virtual Linguist:
    a kitchen utensil that[1] you have no idea what[2] to use ___[1] for ___[2]
    It's probably easier to process because the relative clause gap isn't the subject.

  11. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    Following up on AJD: we' ve discussed relative clauses with the relativizers "which" or "that" but no gap (representing the relativized NP) within them several times, most recently:

    ML, 10/14/07: Ask Language Log: Gapless relatives:

    AZ, 10/14/07: More gapless relatives:

    The "where" strategy represents a different sort of solution to the problem of formulating a characterizing expression.

  12. John Lawler said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    Many if not most of these ungrammaticalities are the result of violations of Ross constraints, which my name above points at a short introduction to. Notice the discussion at the end, about mortal vs venial syntactic errors.

  13. Brandon said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    This post is an interesting look at a complex sentence construction where no body knows what a text-book grammatically correct sentence meaning the same thing might look like.

  14. dr pepper said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

    Linguistics is used as a front for magic by those who believe that what you can say controls what you can think.

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

    You might think people studying the Dark Arts would have to be the ones who are extraordinarily detail-oriented, because, after all, they are risking their immortal souls. As it happens, instead, they just lose them right off and then, hey, no problem!

  16. John Cowan said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 11:09 pm

    I see this thing has indeed, as you predicted, dragged on. But tell me: have your eyes indeed moved too close together, and has Higginbotham's head in fact become too round? Inquiring linguists want to know.

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