Two (unrelated) items in my queue, on familiar topics: ambiguity and government by the nearest.
Archive for the ‘Ellipsis’ Category
Heard (many times) on tv, in an ad for the drug Xeljanz:
Don’t take Xeljanz if you have any kind of infection, unless OK with your doctor.
Unless OK with your doctor is an ellipsis over the line for me; for me, it would have to be unless that’s / it’s OK with your doctor. But obviously that’s not the case for everybody. From two other pieces of medical advice:
The dad’s “I don’t know” conveys that he’s unsure of his opinion on the subject (whatever that is), so he says “Ask Mom”, meaning ‘Ask Mom what she thinks”, with ellipsis of the Wh-clause object of ask, but with understood reference (within that object) to the mother. But Jeremy takes the other possible reading, involving reference to the father — i.e., ‘Ask Mom what I think’ — which, though possible, is unlikely in context (how should the mother know what the father thinks, when he doesn’t know himself?).
A Matt Bors cartoon (found via Funny Times):
Entertaining as the political message is, my interest here is in the syntax of:
Now I’m a specimen of cold, robotic elitism and horrible acts I can’t quite recall – and so can YOU with my FREE Bully Manual!
with a remarkable ellipsis in and so can YOU ‘and so can YOU be’ — for which we can surely thank Stephen Colbert.
A little while ago Geoff Pullum wrote me with what he thought might be a counterexample to our treatment of Auxiliary Reduction in English (in “Cliticization vs. inflection” and in the longer, still unpublished version of “Licensing of prosodic features by syntactic rules: The key to Auxiliary Reduction”). The relevant bit is the third instance of would’ve in this passage from a review in Slate (all three instances boldfaced here):
It’s fun to think about what Cowboys & Aliens might have been if any creativity had crept past the title page. Instead of bonding over their shared humanity, it would’ve been fascinating to see the cowboys and Indians take opposite sides in the movie’s climactic intergalactic battle. Cowboys & Aliens vs. Indians would’ve been a far superior film, as would’ve Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians. Or Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians & Predator. What we’re left with instead is a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart. (link)
[extracted from this] (1) Cowboys & Aliens vs. Indians would’ve been a far superior film, as would’ve Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians.
The crucial fact is that the third instance seems to be in an occurrence of Subject-Auxiliary Inversion (SAI); the other two are instances of Subject+VP (SVP), which (while they might set the scene for the third would’ve) doesn’t involve inversion. The problem is that SAI inverts a single auxiliary, while on the Z&P analysis of reduced auxiliaries, would’ve is, from a syntactic point of view, a sequence of two auxiliaries.
Hilton Als, or one of his editors at the New Yorker, has opted for prescriptively correct (but now very formal and even archaic-sounding) whom in a context where I think who would be stylistically much more natural (discussion of some other cases of “Object whom” here):
Jackie [a man] wants to make love, but Veronica has something on her mind. She’s been seeing someone else, but won’t say whom. Is it their downstairs neighbor, the motherfucker with a hat? (Hilton Als, “War Games” [review of “The Motherfucker with the Hat”], New Yorker 4/25/11, p. 86)
Caught on a Law & Order re-run recently, this exchange:
A: Didn’t you accuse him of harassing you?
B: I did ___, and he was ___.
B’s answer is a coordination, with a Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE) in each conjunct (the position of the ellipted material is indicated by underscores): a “dual VPE”, in the terms of my 2007 posting on the phenomenon. The ellipted material matches its antecedent in verb form in each case — VPE allows mismatch, though matching forms are most common — but the antecedents are different: accuse him of harassing you for the first (with BSE matching BSE), harassing you (with PRP matching PRP, though the antecedent has a gerund use of PRP, the ellipsis a progressive use of PRP). To make things more complicated still, the second antecedent is contained within the first.
That’s enough complexity in this example that some people find that it takes a little extra processing work to understand.
A very brief summary of the English construction known as Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE), from a 2006 Language Log posting of mine:
Background about VPE: this is an English construction in which the complement of an auxiliary verb (a modal, BE, or perfect HAVE, plus a few other things for some speakers) or infinitival TO is omitted:(1) I can’t juggle knives, but Dmitri can ___.
(2) I’m not going, but Dmitri is ___.
(3) I was attacked by the wolves, but Dmitri wasn’t ___.
(4) I’ll be unhappy, and Dmitri will be ___, too.
(5) I’ve finished my work, and Dmitri has ___, too.
(6) I don’t want to eat the sashimi, but Dmitri wants to ___.
(The “remainder” elements are bold-faced here, and the missing complements are indicated by underscores.)
Though the construction is usually known as Verb Phrase Ellipsis (sometimes Verb Phrase Deletion), the omitted phrase is not always a VP. In (4), it’s an AdjP. “VPE” isn’t a bad name, but it doesn’t tell you everything. The slogan is: Labels Are Not Definitions.
VPE requires a linguistic antecedent — it’s not enough that the appropriate verbal semantics be “in the air” — but it doesn’t require that the omitted complement match the antecedent perfectly.
I’ve been collecting VPE examples for years now. This is a summary report on the relationship between antecedent (ant) expressions and ellipses (ell) in VPE, focused on the inflectional categories of Vs.
Just in, from my daughter, about her daughter:
On Friday, Opal does work that she brings home. Yesterday’s included the word problem: Mother cat had 6 kittens. 5 kittens went to new owners. How many were left?
Opal’s answer, duly checked off by the teacher, was “2 cats were left.”
Thank goodness she gave a complete non-elliptical sentence as an answer. That’s what you’re expected to do in school talk, even though it totally goes against ordinary language use, which sensibly enough goes for brevity.
Opal’s answer, which chooses one of the two ways of filling in the N ellipsis in the question’s how many? — ‘how many cats?’ vs. ‘how many kittens?’ — does, however, opt for the contextually less likely reading of the question: the set-up for the question is about kittens — the discourse topic is kittens — so the expected fill-in for the ellipsis would be kittens, not cats, even though the N cat is out there in the context. That is, the expected elliptical answer would be “1”, or somewhat less elliptically, “1 kitten”, or the complete sentence “1 kitten was left”. (Ok, a kid who responded with any of these might still have the answer marked WRONG by a stickler teacher, since they all have “1”, the numeral, instead of “one”, the number word. My god, school is a minefield.)
I suspect that Opal might have learned, by experience rather than explicit teaching, to anticipate pitfalls and tricks in test questions, which you can avoid only by talking with utter explicitness. It’s still an open question whether she honestly (and unconsciously) interpreted the question in the contextually less appropriate way, or whether she was (perhaps without thinking it through) being clever and tweaking the person who wrote the question, or whether she meta-reasoned (unconsciously) that 6-minus-5 was just too stupidly easy a question, so that some answer less obvious than “1” was called for. (Not that we could find out by asking her: if she could supply an answer to the question “Why did you say ‘2 cats’?” at all, the answer she gave would be likely to be a construction based on her interpretation of the reasons behind our question, since she would have been extremely unlikely to have had insight into the springs of her behavior at the time she wrote her answer — whatever they might believe, people aren’t at all good at getting access to their unconscious thought processes — and she’s even less likely to remember these details now. So I’m having breakfast with Opal and her mother in a few minutes but won’t ask her why she gave that answer.)
Oh dear, this has gone way past just a brief reporting of a data point. So goes the academic life!