Finding error everywhere

While checking the source of a double-preposition example (“That’s the code in which I live by”, from a John Cena television commercial for a World Wrestling Entertainment show), I came across Bonnie Trenga’s Sentence Sleuth site, which offers a compendium of “criminal sentences” (the Cena sentence is Criminal Sentence 294, from October 27).

Many of these have routine misspellings, misuses of punctuation, and the like. Some, like the Cena sentence, are clearly syntactically problematic. But in some of them Trenga finds ambiguity, redundancy, and ungrammaticality in unremarkable examples. I suspect that she is looking too hard for error and then finding it everywhere.

For instance, in CS 293, from October 23, she objects to a CNN caption mentioning “fat CEO salaries”, on the grounds that the expression is ambiguous, and in CS 297, from October 30, she objects to “examples include a, b, and”, on the grounds that it’s redundant.

And then in CS 291, from October 21, she reported:

And now for something completely ungrammatical, from a newspaper article about how DNA in a leech helped solve a crime in Australia:

“Detectives found the leech at the crime scene and extracted blood from it that they believed was from one of the two suspects.”

Yep. The words “from it that” are not allowed in English. They just don’t make sense in that order.

Presumably she’s thinking that the relative clause “that they believed was from one of their two suspects” is a misplaced modifier, because it doesn’t immediately follow the head noun “blood”. She offers two replacements for “extracted blood from it that …”:

extracted from it blood that they believed was from one of the two suspects

extracted blood that they believed was from one of the two suspects

But there’s nothing wrong with the original, or with variants of it with a which relative or a zero relative:

extracted blood from it which they believe was from one of the two suspects

extracted blood from it they believed was from one of the two suspects

That is, the issue is not with the sequence of words from it that, but with the structures involved. Here’s a somewhat different from it that example, involving complementation rather than relativization:

Thanks for the progress report. I see from it that you’re unlikely to finish on schedule.

What’s going on in both the relative and complement clause examples is that English allows such clauses to be deferred to the end of the sentence, so as to avoid the awkward and hard-to-process sequence of a long, complex constituents followed by a short constituent, as in:

extracted blood  that they believed was from one of the two suspects from it

see  that you’re unlikely to finish on schedule from it

Indeed, Trenga’s first suggested fix has another type of deferral in it, with the whole complex NP “blood that they believed was from one of the two suspects” deferred to sentence-final position.

There’s a considerable literature on the details of these deferrals, under the names Relative Clause Extraposition, Complement Clause Extraposition, and Heavy (or Complex) NP Movement.

2 Responses to “Finding error everywhere”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Such “ambiguity” finding reminds me of this xkcd (“If you learned to speak lojban, your communication would be completely unambiguous and logical.” “Yeah, but it would all be with the kind of people who learn lojban.”)

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To The Ridger: lojban turns out to be very much relevant to these discussions of ambiguity. I’ve had a posting in preparation on the topic for a very long time; maybe I should get back to it now.

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