Data points: gapless relatives 11/25/10

From a commercial for Mr. Clean (a household cleaning agent), seen recently on tv:

(1) He’s cleaning things that we don’t even know what they are.

The relative clause, boldfaced above, has no gap of “extraction” in it; instead, the pronoun they is anaphoric to the head of the relative, things. The gapped version is stunningly worse:

(2) He’s cleaning things that we don’t even know what ___ are.

In (2) the gap is inside an “anaphoric island”, a WH clause, and worse, it’s a subject gap, so using a “resumptive pronoun” instead of a gap, as in (1), repairs the problem in processing the relative clause — yielding something that’s not standard English but is comprehensible.

So (1) is an example of what I called in a Language Log posting from three years ago a ResIsland gapless relative (with a resumptive pronoun repairing an island violation). They are pretty common, and many of them have a somewhat vernacular and playful feel to them, an effect that might make the Mr. Clean commercial noticeable and memorable.


One Response to “Data points: gapless relatives 11/25/10”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    A long time ago I posted on my web site a little piece on what islands are, and why they’re so important to things like relative clauses:

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