VPE mismatches

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.

But first, a note that other matchings (NP ant with NP ell, PP ant with PP ell, AdjP ant with AdjP ell) are not hard to collect, nor are exact matches in inflectional categories of Vs: BSE (base-form) ant with BSE ell, PRP (present-participle, or gerund-participle) ant with PRP ell, PSP (past-participle) ant with PSP ell. FIN (a finite form, whether present or past tense, in any person and number) doesn’t serve as ell, of course, because the ell must be in a complement of a remainder element, and all the remainders require a non-finite complement (BSE, PRP, or PSP).

That leaves nine possible mismatches, all except one attested in the data I’ve collected so far. My data are collected fortuitously, from things I come across in reading and listening, a process that makes the frequencies of the various types uninterpretable, because the process depends on my noticing the VPE in the first place (a number of examples were humorously intended and caught my eye that way). One example of each type (there are a few more examples here):

1. BSE ant, PRP ell (the “McWhorter configuration”, so labeled for its deployment by John McWhorter on Language Log (discussion here)): You say to let Mary handle it, but she’s not. (7th Heaven episode)

2. BSE ant, PSP ell:  Now that cellphone cameras are all but ubiquitous, there isn’t a moment that can’t be snapped – so if the truth were out there, we’d see it. And we haven’t. (John Schwartz, “Out of This World, Out of Our Minds”, NYT Week in Review)

3. FIN ant, BSE ell: We work hard so you don’t have to. (Scrubbing Bubbles commercial, seen 9/09)

4. FIN ant, PRP ell (the “Baković configuration”, so labeled for its deployment by Eric Baković on Language Log (discussion here)): He gave himself insulin injections daily, and had been for years. (Boston Legal episode)

5. FIN ant, PSP ell: Left behind to manage the family’s finances, she [Abigail Adams] arguably did a better job than John would have. (Virginia DeJohn Anderson, review of Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams)

6. PRP ant, BSE ell (“reverse McWhorter”): A: I don’t think Grissom’s coming back. B: Why wouldn’t he? (episode of CSI)

7. PRP ant, PSP ell:  Incarcerating people who do not need to be is not only illegal but inhumane. (“California’s Crowded Prisons”, NYT editorial)

8. PSP ant, BSE ell: She wasn’t even thinking about getting hurt. But then she did. (NPR Morning Edition story — an example that I collected this morning and that moved me to write this posting, though I have five other examples of this type)

9. PSP ant, PRP ell: the only one not attested so far, but here’s an invented example: I’ve never gone to Mexico, but I am now.

Some are humorous, but many are not. Some take a moment of processing work (in a way that exact matches do not), but none are actually hard to understand, and I see no reason to classify them as unacceptable or ungrammatical — unless you’re someone who insists on matching inflectional categories as a matter of rigid principle (some discussion here).

2 Responses to “VPE mismatches”

  1. VPE: antecedent-finding « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] by reference to an overt constituent (also usually a VP) serving as antecedent (details summarized here). Usually the antecedent is quite close to the ellipsis, but in some examples it’s more […]

  2. Dual VPE « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] 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 […]

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