for on the desktop

A few days ago on ADS-L, Wilson Gray reported this example:

iTunar Desktop is a small iTunes info viewer for on the desktop. (link)

and queried for on.

The short response is that this is just a P (for) with a PP object (on the desktop) — an ordinary construction of English (in The cognac is for after dinner, I took the basket from under the desk, etc.), discussed in the big grammars of standard English (like CGEL). So the structure of

(1) for on the desktop

is

(2) P1 + [ P2 + NP]

and for on isn’t a constituent within (1).

But that’s not the end of the story.

What complicates things is that corresponding to (1), with structure (2), there is the roughly equivalent

(3) for the desktop

with the structure

(4) P1 + NP

What makes this possible is that the default P for location with respect to a plane surface (like a desktop) is on, so that (3) can be understood as having an “implicit on“, with the NP the desktop understood like on the desktop (which contrasts with other expressions of location, which require P2: for under the desktop, for near the desktop, for above the desktop, etc.).

To sum up things so far: (1) and (3) are alternative expressions, (1) having the locational relationship explicitly marked, (3) having it implicit. That is, (3) behaves like a “bare NP adverbial”, an NP functioning like a P-marked adverbial: compare

We met Sunday. [bare]
We met on Sunday. [P-marked]

As I pointed out here, the relationship between bare and P-marked adverbials is complex; many P-marked adverbials (like at 6 o’clock  in We met at 6 o’clock) have no bare counterpart; some bare adverbials (like yesterday in We met yesterday) have no P-marked counterpart in standard English; and there is considerable variation for some cases. These are very well-studied phenomena, though there’s still a lot to be figured out.

But the simple fact of the matter is that structures like (2) and (4) are sometimes in alternation, whatever the details are for particular cases; a grammar of English has to describe these facts. Indeed, you can argue that it’s good to have available both an explicitly marked construction like (2), which has the virtue of clarity, and an implicitly marked construction like (4), which has the virtue of brevity.

But some people aren’t content to leave things at that. If you’re intolerant of variation and tend to insist that there should be One Right Way of saying things, then alternatives like (1) and (3) — or, more generally, (2) and (4) — will be suspect. You’ll want to pick one variant as the correct (or at least favored) one; call this the central variant. And you’ll treat the other variants as deviations from the central one (hence viewing the central variant as basic in some significant sense). If you follow this train of thought out, you’ll end up assigning non-central variants to some umbrella category of mistakes — in particular, violations of one of the terrible twins Omit Needless Words (ONW) and Include All Necessary Words (IANW).

For bare vs. P-marked adverbials, this is the choice between labeling the bare variants as unacceptably truncated and labeling the P-marked variants as unacceptably pleonastic. As it turns out, for run-of-the-mill cases like We met (on) Sunday, I haven’t come across critics who reject one of the alternatives in favor of the other — even critics who are otherwise dogged in their pursuit of ONW or IANW. (One colleague of mine suggests, harshly, that these critics countenance the alternations because (a) they are idiots, (b) they are hypocrites, (c) they didn’t think their position through, and (d) nobody could carry the program through consistently.) I haven’t seen objections specifically to either (1) or (3), though I suspect that the sequence of Ps for on in (1) would cause some critics to label (1) pleonastic, a failure to apply ONW. Probably it was the sequence of Ps that led Wilson Gray into questioning (1) in the first place.

For a later posting: the many ways you can end up with a sequence of two Ps in English. (The use of the P for in (1) and (3) could use some attention too, but I don’t know enough about that to post about it at the moment.)

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