who or when

From an episode (“Denial”, 2002) of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit:

(1) You don’t have the right or the authority to tell the District Attorney’s Office who or when to level charges against.

There’s trouble with that coordination who or when to level charges against: the who “unpacks” to who to level charges against, which is fine, but the when unpacks to when to level charges against, which is not.

The problem arises in certain coordinations of interrogative WH words.

Neal Whitman has a fondness for such cases. Here’s an example he wrote about a couple of years ago:

(2) …the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. (Steve Martin, Born Standing Up, p. 1)

In (2) it’s when and what to say next that presents the problem, but this time it’s the second WH word, what, that works with the following material (what to say next), while it’s the first one that doesn’t fly when unpacked (when to say next) — just the opposite of the arrangement in (1).It’s pretty clear that it’s not the order of the WH words that’s at issue, but the function of these interrogative words in the subordinate clause: when a WH word functions as an object in this clause, it’s fine, but when it’s  coordinated with another WH word that functions as an adjunct (of place, time, or whatever) in that clause, then the adjunct WH word may be problematic.

It’s pretty clear what’s going on: the interpretation of the adjunct WH word requires that the rest of the subordinate clause be interpreted, but that clause has a gap in it corresponding to the object WH word. The conjuncts are not parallel.

(1) is easily fixed with a pronoun instead of a gap, but at the cost of a longer clause:

(1′) … who to level charges against or when to level charges against them

(2) is a little trickier. The piece with a gap in it (deciding when [to say ___ next]) precedes the piece with the filler (deciding what to say), so supplying a pronoun in place of the gap really won’t do:

(2′) … deciding when to say that/it and what to say next

Reordering the conjuncts would fix that:

(2″a) … deciding what to say next and when to say that/it

And then, as Whitman noted, a short version is available using the construction called Sluicing:

(2″b) … deciding what to say next, and when

A similar variant is available for (1′):

(1″) … who to level charges against, or when

How do people end up producing things like (1) and (2)? To start with, coordination of interrogative WH words is unproblematic, so long as the words are parallel in function (both objects or both adjuncts) and are semantically plausible in the context:

[two objects] I don’t know who or what to look at.

[two adjuncts] We decided when and where to meet.

This is a handy and compact scheme of coordination, and you can see why people might want to stretch it to further territory. And the results are easily interpreted in the context of utterance, even if they are formally non-parallel. There are probably many examples like (1) and (2) around, but they go mostly unnoticed (except by linguists and usage commentators, who are alert to such things).

One Response to “who or when”

  1. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Many examples no doubt escape notice, but some are spectacularly inept, like this find of Chris Waigl’s:

    From the ECDB email address’s spam folder: “Who and why should we take Viagra?” in the subject line, links to online pharmacies in the body.

    This is supposed to convey ‘Who should take Viagra and why should we?’, I guess (though it might be a waste of brain cells to analyze spam messages with any care).

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