Snarled-up ESOC on the op-ed page

Alana Newhouse, “The Diaspora Need Not Apply” [on who is a Jew], op-ed piece in NYT, 7/16/10:

It will do little good, too, to point out that [“the stringent approach to Jewish law that the Israeli rabbinate promotes”] is well outside the consensus established by Hillel — arguably the greatest rabbi in all of rabbinic Judaism and whom, as Joseph Telushkin argues in a forthcoming book, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot, simply because he’d asked [Hillel to].

That whom remains in the on-line version as of August 3. It looks like a case of ESOC (“extracted subject of an object clause”), a type of usage — one of several — in which accusative whom appears in subject function. ESOC (along with its cousin ISOC) is discussed in a long piece of mine about who vs. whom on Language Log a few years ago. (If you have questions or comments about the technical details, variability in the data, the status of ISOC and ESOC as mistakes or non-standard variants, and the like, I’d suggest that you look at that piece and its follow-up, here, before posting a comment here.)

But in this example several constructions are snarled up together, in such a way that it’s hard to see what might be going on (though, mercifully, Newhouse’s intended meaning seems clear enough, so that no one detected a problem with the sentence).

Contributing issues:

(1) There’s that parenthetical phrase “as Joseph Telushkin argues in a forthcoming book” intervening between the (non-restrictive) relative pronoun and the rest of its clause, the VP “was willing to convert a pagan on spot …”. Removing the parenthetical material produces the non-restrictive relative (modifying Hillel)

… whom was willing to convert a pagan on the spot …

which I very much hope Newhouse would not be willing to endorse. Certainly it doesn’t fall into any of the structurally explicable types of non-standard whom that I’m aware of — looking instead like a purely ornamental whom of hyper-standard, fancy-sounding, speech and writing.

(2) But removing the parenthetical material removes the likely trigger for accusative case, the verb argues. If you re-work things to get argues and the relativizer together in a clause, in something like

Hillel, [ whom Joseph Telushkin argues [ ___ was willing to convert a pagan on the spot ] ]

(relativizer in boldface, position of the gap of extraction indicated by underlines, clauses marked off by square brackets) then you have a classic ESOC, with the relativizer picking up accusative case from the location of its gap in object position after the verb argues (though the gap is in fact a subject gap in a finite clause rather than an object gap in the higher clause). That would at least be a non-standardism (rather than an inadvertent error).

But I don’t see any way to reorganize what Newhouse actually wrote to get this effect.

(3) Finally, there’s an edgy parallel construction involving the non-restrictive relative clause in question (“whom, as Joseph Tarushkin argues …, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot …”): it’s coordinated with an NP, “arguably the greatest rabbi in all of rabbinic Judaism” — well, with a predicative NP, “the greatest rabbi …” (conveying ‘who was the greatest rabbi …’), preceded by the qualifying adverbial “arguably” modifying the whole predicative (‘who was arguably the greatest rabbi …’).

In any case, we’ve got NP coordinated with Clause, a type of coordination of unlike categories that makes some sticklers break out in asterisks, though it is in fact a very common type, so common that many analysts would say it’s not ungrammatical, just somewhat hard to process.

I suspect that this coordination of unlikes gums up the works enough that it’s hard to appreciate what’s going on with the rest of the syntax in the example. Newhouse might have been aiming for ESOC in her sentence, but it got snarled up in the tangle of the parenthetical and the coordination of unlikes.

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