VPE: antecedent-finding

The construction known as Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE) has an omitted complement (the ellipsis, usually a VP) that is interpreted 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 distant, and one or more potential antecedents intervene. These examples are grammatical, but not always easy to interpret; the interpretive task is quite similar to the task of finding antecedents for third-person definite pronouns.

Two examples of “distant” VPE collected recently, both with a finite antecedent (bold-faced) and a base-form ellipsis (indicated by underscores):

Salesperson: With Progressive, you get the “name your price” tool. It helps you find the price that’s right for you.
Customer (employed by rival company): Oh, the price gun. Ah oh, wish we had this. We just tell people what to pay.
Salesperson: Yeah, we’re the only ones that do ____. (tv commercial for Progressive Insurance, seen repeatedly in 2010-11)

Here the VP tell people what to do is a potential antecedent, though with a micro-moment’s reflection, I could discard this as nonsensical in context (and the VP pay is even worse).

Because we do everything based on seniority, where I lie in the department, they’d have to lay off like 80 people, and we just couldn’t function. So, personally, I feel safe. The guys who are toward the bottom of the list, I can’t speak for them specifically, but if it were me, I wouldn’t ___. (police officer Nicholas Weber, quoted in “Obama’s Jobs Search” by Peter Baker, NYT Magazine 1/23/11, p. 43)

Here the VP speak for them specifically is a possible antecedent, but it doesn’t make sense (and are toward the bottom of the list and were me are even worse). Another micro-moment of processing for me.

(It’s likely that many people don’t experience that micro-moment. People differ in their processing strategies.)



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