A double-barreled summative

From the lead story in the NYT on the 16th, “Karzai Insisting on U.S. Pullback to Bases by 2013”:

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai insisted Thursday that the United States confine its troops to major bases in Afghanistan by next year as the Taliban announced that they were suspending peace talks with the Americans, both of which served to complicate the Obama administration’s plans for an orderly exit from the country.

The grammatical point here has to do with the non-restrictive relative clause beginning with both of which (boldfaced above). The intended reference is to two situations, Karzai’s insistence and the Taliban’s announcement, the combination of which complicates the Obama administration’s plans. Neither of these situations is expressed in the sentence by a NP; instead, reference to the situations is via the VPs insisted … and announced … For many usage authorities, this sort of summative reference is unacceptable, because the pronoun which has no NP antecedent and is therefore declared to be unacceptably vague.

This is an old topic on Language Log and this blog, beginning with my 2008 posting “Why are some summatives labeled “vague”?” (here), where I look at three types of “vague” summatives: those with non-restrictive which, those with subjectless PRPs, and those with demonstrative this or that. From that posting:

The facts: in general, summatives, of all types, are entirely grammatical and have been grammatical in English for a very long time. For many occurrences — all anaphora can go wrong on occasion, of course — no well-disposed reader or hearer could possibly mistake their meaning, and they’ve been used by good writers from way back. Yet many people judge them to be always unacceptably vague.

Even more puzzling: the fixes that are offered often strike me as in no way less vague than the originals. These fixes usually have summative NPs

For the Afghan example, the fix for both of which served … would be either to supply a head N for which (both of which events served …) or to shift to an appositive NP with a following restrictive relative (two events that served …). These are still summative modifiers, but now with a head N — events in this case — used anaphorically. As I noted in tbe 2008 posting, since they use Ns with very general reference, such fixes are only marginally less “vague” than the Ø or pronominal constructions they replace, if at all. Their only virtue is that they preserve the idea that anaphoric pronouns (and their Ø analogues) are literally replacements for nouns — a theoretical commitment that, though literally ancient, is impossible to defend empirically.

The extra feature in the Afghan example is the combination of summative modification (in non-restrictive which) with “split antecedents”, where an anaphoric expression picks up its referent from two or more expressions in the context, as in

When Harry met Sally, they (both) / both of them were edgily intrigued.

Bonus: a few more postings on summatives:

LLog, AZ, 5/22/08: More theory trumping practice (link)

LLog, ML, 5/23/08: Poor pitiful which (link)

LLog, ML, 5/23/08: Clarity, choice, and evidence (link)

AZBlog, 10/10/09: The implicated event of pizza eating (link)

AZBlog, 11/25/10: how/that (link): summative it

AZBlog, 3/2/11: Dangling advice (link)

One Response to “A double-barreled summative”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    I actually found the Kabul example hard to process. “Hard to process” doesn’t mean ungrammatical; and I don’t think I could have extracted the wrong meaning, but I took longer than usual to get the right one.

    While “both of which events” wouldn’t have helped me, “both of which announcements” might have. Maybe there are some cases like this where an extra word can signal “this ‘which’ has a summative antecent, so don’t waste time looking back for NPs”.

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