Archive for the ‘Syntax’ Category


July 3, 2015

In the NYRB of 7/10/15, p. 46, in “Climate: Will We Lose the Endgame?’ by Bill McKibben (relevant bit boldfaced):

(1) the geology of the region is bowl-shaped: beneath the glaciers the ground slopes downward, meaning that water can and is flooding underneath them.

Modals like can govern the BSE form of their complements (water can flood underneath them); the auxiliary verb be governs the PRP form of its complement (water is flooding underneath them); so when can and is are coordinated, there is no verb form for the complement VP that satisfies both requirements. Quite commonly, speakers and writers (even in formal written contexts like NYRB) opt to satisfy only one of the requirements, the one imposed by the nearer V: this is government by the nearest (GbN).

I’ve grown accustomed to many occurrences of GbN, but some strike me as particularly jarring, I’m not sure why, and this is one of those cases.


caused traffic to snarl, as well as some injuries and accidents

June 20, 2015

The whole sentence, as it appeared in the Daily Post (central S.F. Peninsula) on 6/11/15, p. 38, in “Juror complains protestor trial is a waste of time” by Angela Ruggiero:

(1) The sudden blockade caused traffic to snarl, as well as some injuries and accidents.

This has the V caused in construction with some sort of DO + VP complement traffic to snarl (a kind of “accusative + infinitive”, to use traditional terminology) and simultaneously in construction with a direct object, a coordinate NP some injuries and accidents. We start with the observation that this is a kind of coordination of unlike syntactic categories: whatever the syntactic category of DO + VP is, it’s not NP.

Now, despite what some usage handbooks would have you believe, coordinations of unlikes are far from generally barred — but some types are markedly odd, at least for many speakers (and in this case, I am one of them; for me, (1) is one type of what the Language Loggers came to call “WTF coordinations”, for the characteristic reaction some people have to them). (more…)

The hunted 95 per cent?

June 4, 2015

Let’s start with:

(1) Hunted for its horns, 95 percent of the population disappeared

This looks like a classic “dangling modifier”. We have a SPAR hunted for its horns (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), but the adjunct doesn’t obey the Subject Rule (doesn’t pick up its referent from the subject of the main clause: (1) doesn’t in fact tell us that 95 percent of the population was hunted for its horns). (On the concepts and terminology, see the material in the Page on “Dangler postings”, especially the “as a SPAR” posting.)

But even without context, (1) is easily understood: 95 percent of the population is a metonymic stand-in for a population of X, and it’s X that was hunted for its horns. But that takes some interpretive work. However, when more discourse context is provided, this work is no longer needed, and I’d expect that readers wouldn’t even notice that (1) is technically a dangling modifier.


This week’s diathesis alternation

June 1, 2015

From the NYT yesterday, in “Who Will Watch the Charities?” by David Callahan:

Last week federal authorities disclosed that four cancer charities had bilked tens of millions of dollars from donors.

The subordinate clause here has a VP of the form:

(1) bilk MONEY from VICTIM

where I might have used one of the form:

(2) bilk VICTIM of MONEY

i.e., four cancer charities had bilked donors of tens of millions of dollars. Same verb, same participants in the event (a victim, some money), but different syntax: different argument structures, that is, different associations of the syntactic arguments (direct object DO and oblique object OO) with the participants. In more detail:

(1) V: bilk DO:MONEY P: from + OO:VICTIM

(2) V: bilk DO:VICTIM P: of + OO:MONEY

There is some tradition for referring to such a variation between argument structures as a diathesis alternation. In this case, both alternants are standard, and, so far as I can tell, are treated as such in the usage literature.


Recursive giraffe

May 30, 2015

In searching for some other cartoons yesterday, I came across this entertaining New Yorker cartoon by Farley Katz:

Yes, a recursive giraffe: each of its “horns” (technically, ossicones) is a giraffe, and each of their horns is a giraffe, and so on.


Charles Blow’s non-parallelism

May 24, 2015

From his op-ed column “Unaffiliated and Underrepresented” in the NYT on the 18th:

(1) The issue in this country is less that Christians are persecuted as much as peevish.

Two things: the parallelism between persecuted and peevish; and the parallelism between less that X and as much as Y.


The literalist

May 21, 2015

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm, with a literalist Ralph coping with Grimm’s could care less:

could care less has been a perennial topic on Language Log and this blog. But in all the discussion among linguists and psycholinguists no one disputes that there’s an idiom here, and it has a negative element of meaning that is not overt. Ralph the literalist essentially denies this, implicitly taking the position that if Grimmy meant he couldn’t care less he should have said that.


Conjunction or preposition?

May 21, 2015

In the NYT yesterday, p. 19, in “Happy Rockefeller, 88, Whose Marriage to Governor Scandalized Voters, Dies” by Robert D. McFadden:

many Americans were shocked when Margaretta Fitler Murphy, called Happy, and Mr. Rockefeller, who was nearly 18 years older than she, married on May 4, 1963.

The point is than she, with a nominative pronoun in construction with than — where many people (I am one) would have used the accusative her. There’s a long-standing issue in usage here, which I’ve posted about on this blog (as “Dinosaur grammar”), in connection with a Dinosaur Comics.


Fig time

May 20, 2015

A couple days ago I caught a snippet of a discussion on KQED-FM about overwintering fig plants. Why people were discussing the topic as we near the beginning of summer I don’t know, but there it was. I’m not caring for any fig plants here in Palo Alto, but back when I lived in Columbus OH most of the year I had two: a Ficus benjamina, a very common house plant in temperate climates; and a Ficus carica, the plant the people on the radio were talking about (an ornamental and the source of the figs we eat), which I grew in Columbus as a potted plant, to serve as a reminder of California.

Now some figgy reflections, starting with some Ficus plants and then wandering on to other fig-related matters: the fig leaf of modesty, figgy pudding, Fig Newtons, and the negative polarity item care/give a fig.



May 19, 2015

Part 1:  Back in my posting on “Words to eliminate”, I looked at a site that proposed to get you to improve your writing by eliminating 15 words from it. (Yes, a silly idea.) One of these was that:

[Mashable advice] It’s superfluous most of the time. Open any document you’ve got drafted on your desktop, and find a sentence with “that” in it. Read it out loud. Now read it again without “that.” If the sentence works without it, delete it.

The idea is fraught with problems, most turning on the fact that there are several distinct lexical items that, with a large number of uses, and with distinct syntax, discourse functions, and sociolinguistic statuses for each use.

Part 2: On one of these items, the complementizer that, and its use to mark the object complement of a verb, as in

They know (that) pigs can’t fly.

(where the that variant and the ∅ variant are both fine).

But then I started an e-mail to a friend:

 I do wish people would credit sources.

(with the ∅ variant; the that variant is also possible) and thought to link to previous context with a though — but then the ∅ variant struck me as very awkward indeed:

?? I do wish, though, people would credit sources.

though the that variant is fine:

 I do wish, though, that people would credit sources.

What’s crucial is that material intervenes between the complement-taking verb and the complement. It turns out that this intervention effect is well-known in the variation literature.



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