Resumptive pronoun, or something

From Bruce Webster in e-mail a few days ago, a pointer to an story of January 27 about Jeff Fisher leaving as coach of the Tennessee Titans (“Split is best move for both Fisher and Titans” by Michael Lombardi). The final sentence in this passage is the one of interest; the problematic subordinate clause is bold-faced, but the larger context is important:

When defensive line coach Jim Washburn walked out the door and headed to Philadelphia, so did a piece of Fisher. Fisher believes the game is won up front — in both the offensive and defensive lines. He took great pride in being strong in both areas, with his players and coaches. Once he lost Washburn, whom Titans management allowed his contract to expire, Fisher lost any chance of having the kind of team he envisioned.

The bold-faced clause is a non-restrictive relative clause (modifying Washburn) with an internal anaphoric pronoun, his, referring to Washburn. So the bold-faced clause has two pronouns with Washburn as antecedent: the initial relative pronoun whom and the internal definite personal pronoun his.

In a normal relative clause, whether restrictive or non-restrictive, there’s an initial relative pronoun plus a gap (of “extraction”) within the clause; the gap is interpreted, through the mediation of the relative pronoun, as being filled by the antecedent of the relative pronoun. That is, the expected bold-faced clause would be:

(Washburn,) whom Titans management allowed ___ contract to expire

with the gap interpreted as Washburn’s. The version on is non-standard, but interpretable — the definite personal pronoun his serves as a “resumptive pronoun” — but the gapped version is both ungrammatical and almost impossible to interpret; it violates one of the “island constraints” on extraction.

So far so good. The clause has a resumptive pronoun that avoids violating an island constraint (there’s been discussion on Language Log of such resumptives, in particular here). But how did the writer get into this tangle in the first place?

A side issue: the writer, or an editor, has chosen the case-marked relative pronoun whom, suitable for an extracted object, but there is no structural motivation within the relative clause for that. (In addition, the use of whom here is decidedly formal in style, which is especially jarring in sports writing.) There is, however, a kind of motivation for the object form in the preceding context: Washburn is the direct object of  lost in the preceding once-clause, and apparently someone has allowed the relative pronoun to pick up its case-marking from its antecedent — much as in the ESOC cases I’ve talked about on Language Log. Fixing the whom improves things some, but there’s still the resumptive pronoun thing:

(Washburn,) who Titans management allowed his contract to expire

Maybe part of the problem comes from there being two salient referents in this part of the text, Fisher (who’s the topic of the whole article) and Washburn (who’s just been introduced into the discourse), and two definite personal pronouns, he as subject of the once-clause and resumptive his within the relative clause.

The first is unproblematic, since it picks up its referent (Fisher) from preceding context (though someone involved in creating the sentence might have been thrown off-track by the fact that the he looks like it’s cataphoric to the later occurrence of Fisher). The second is in fact also unproblematic, since the relative clause modifies Washburn, so his would most naturally pick up its referent from it, and since reference to Fisher wouldn’t make any sense in the context. But maybe the writer or editor became enmeshed in concerns about pronominal reference.

It looks to me like the cascade of problems began with the decision to introduce the relative clause with who(m). Then the resumptive pronoun was pretty much unavoidable. There were other, better, choices, as Bruce Webster pointed out to me.

One excellent choice would have been to begin with whose contract:

(Washburn,) whose contract Titans management allowed to expire

Another possibility would use an adverbial subordinate clause instead of a relative:

(once he lost Washburn,) when/after Titans management allowed his contract to expire,

(though here the referent of his might be momentarily unclear). Or, as Webster suggested, you could rewrite it with an adverbial subordinate clause inside the relative clause:

(Washburn,) who left when/after Titans management allowed his contract to expire,

(here there’s no unclarity of pronominal reference).

Now, it’s pretty common in speech for someone to embark on a relative clause and then get hung up part-way through, producing a gapless relative rather than going back and taking another tack (an example here). It’s less common to see this sort of thing in edited writing, but it happens.

4 Responses to “Resumptive pronoun, or something”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    Another example here, in the context of fixing a looming Ross Constraint violation in the following sentence:

      That’s the booki [that Bill married the womanj [whoj illustrated ___i]].

  2. Charles J. Fillmore Says:

    these are a bit different, but they’re interesting in their own way:

    J F Cooper, Last of the Mohicans:
    “When this necessary, and, happily, grateful duty had been performed, each of the foresters stooped and took a long and parting draught at that solitary and silent spring, [around which and its sister fountains,] within fifty years, the wealth, beauty, and talents of a hemisphere were to assemble in throngs, in pursuit of health and pleasure.”

    N Hawthorne, House of the Seven Gables:
    “In one corner stood a marble woman, [to whom her own beauty] was the sole and sufficient garment.”

  3. Erik Zyman Carrasco Says:

    Cooper seems to have pied-piped more than is (ordinarily) allowed. (Better that than violate the Coordinate Structure Constraint: *which [they] were to assemble around _ and its sister fountains.) The complexity of the sentence appears to mask its deviance somewhat, but if you simplify the example, it becomes glaringly bad: *the spring around which and its sister fountains I ran.

    On a whimsical note, my first reaction on reading the original sentence was how similar it sounds to the outrageous *Washburn, who Titans management allowed ___’s contract to expire.

  4. Gapless relatives | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] 2/1/11: Resumptive pronoun or something (link) [ex] Washburn, whom Titans management allowed his contract to […]

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