That’s WH!

Today’s Zippy:

Entertaining though the comments on fashion are, my interest here is in the sequence:

Q: Who wears high fashion?
A: Dingburgers..that’s who!

with an ellipsis in the answer that’s a special case of the Sluicing construction discussed in my “Siren song” posting.

As I said there,

In its simplest form, Sluicing allows the omission of all of the material in an embedded WH-interrogative clause, leaving only the initial WH phrase

the ellipsis is in the complement of a verb (wonder, know, make out), but in the cartoon, it’s in a predicative clause; the full A would be:

Dingburgers..that’s who wears high fashion!

(The Q can be rhetorical or straightforward; in the cartoon, it’s rhetorical, expecting the answer “No one!”.  The A often conveys some degree of surprise or revelation — hence, the exclamation point. And, like other instances of Sluicing, That’s WH! is informal in style.)

In the cartoon, the WH-interrogative phrase (the word who) functions as the subject in the interrogative clause. But the full range of functions is possible. A few possibilities:

direct object

Q: Who did we see?
A: Mark Zuckerberg, that’s who!

Q: What did we see?
A: Mark Zuckerberg in a penguin suit, that’s what!

object of preposition

Q: Who did you give it to?
A: My sister, that’s who!

Q: What did you talk about?
A: The unbearable lightness of being, that’s what!

(I’ll come back to these object examples in a little while.)

predicative NP

Q: Who is she?
A: My sister, that’s who!

Q: What is that stuff?
A: Dysprosium, that’s what!


Q: Where did you go?
A: To Dingburg, that’s where!

Q: When did you leave?
A: At noon, that’s when!

Now, the object examples with the lexeme WHO. Above, I’ve given the Qs with the form who, and repeated that form in the As. But of course the formal variant whom is possible in these cases. In the Qs, there’s no issue. But the As have That’s WH! Sluicing, and that construction is decidedly informal, so that the formal whom is somewhat discordant:

Q: Whom did we see?
A: Mark Zuckerberg, that’s whom!

Q: Whom did you give it to?
A: My sister, that’s whom!

But if the form whom in the A echos the form in the Q, as above, the discord is attenuated. There’s still an effect, since who in the A can coexist with whom in the Q — that’s a simple style shift occasioned by the construction — but not the reverse:

Q: Whom did we see?
A: Mark Zuckerberg, that’s who!

Q: Who did we see?
A: Mark Zuckerberg, that’s whom!

The first isn’t bad, especially if two different speakers are involved, but the second is terrible.

11 Responses to “That’s WH!”

  1. Greg Lee Says:

    Dingburgers..that’s who wears high fashion!

    I think it’s from “Dingburgers..that’s who it is that wears high fashion!”

    Then for one of your “whom” examples, we’d have:

    Q: Who did we see?
    A: Mark Zuckerberg, that’s whom it was that we saw!

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    This is a wry reductio, right?

  3. Greg Lee Says:

    Wry? Me? No, I was just suggesting a Sluicing source that made it more obvious what goes wrong in “Who did we see? *Mark, that’s whom!” If you get “Mark, that’s who!” from “Mark, that’s who it was whom we saw!”, you can tell why it is that you can’t wind up with “whom” — it’s in the part that gets sluiced away. Also, it seems more straightforward to account for the variant “Mark, that’s who it was!”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Clever idea (which I’ve heard from others), but it suffers from a grave defect: there’s no reason to think that Sluicing can work to reduce “Mark, that’s who it was whom we saw!” to “Mark, that’s who!”; that is, I can’t see how to formulate Sluicing so that it covers this case as well as the usual ones.

      We can’t just posit “sources” for elliptical constructions any way that will get the results we want.

      • Greg Lee Says:

        Don’t you think Haj’s discovery that Sluicing can break his movement constraints discredits arguments depending on details of the formulation of specific transformations? (For the benefit of other readers, I’m thinking of examples like “Mark, that’s whom (*and Mary we saw)!”)

      • Greg Lee Says:

        Er, sorry, I meant above: “Mark, that’s who (*and Mary we saw)!”

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Rodney Huddleston in e-mail:

    I would add that your Q for object of a preposition has stranding, but of course doesn’t have to: “To whom did you address your letter?”

    The first part of the A may or may not retain the preposition: “To the CEO / The CEO”

    but the That’s WH Sluicing part can’t: *”that’s to whom” / “that’s who/whom”

    It is in fact very rare to find a fronted preposition in the non-sluiced interrogative after that’s, but I have found an example in COCA: “Well, Mr. Kravchuk, I should point out, is the leader of the Ukraine, that’s to whom you’re referring”

    so the complete impossibility of it in That’s WH Sluicing must be attributable to its informal style restriction.

    I agree with Rodney’s judgment on the fronted-P-in-Sluicing example, but find the Kravchuk example pretty much as bad (and Geoff Pullum has the same judgment).

    Then there’s the question of why people occasionally come up with things like the Kravchuk example. Geoff thinks it’s the result of pathological avoidance of stranded Ps (though in e-mail he says this more colorfully; I hope he’ll post on the matter).

  5. Greg Lee Says:

    What about this variant?
    Q: Who are you sending your letter to?
    A: Mark, that’s who to!

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’m beginning to lose my ability to judge some of these examples. “Mark, that’s who to!” is dubious for me, but that’s (I think) because the briefer version “Mark, that’s who!” is available.

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