Calling resumptive pronouns

From Chris Waigl yesterday, a sentence from an article on the consequences of flooding at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth MN:

[All but one of the animals in the barnyard exhibit — sheep, lambs, goats and the donkey — died in the flooding.] The zoo also lost a snowy owl and a turkey vulture and possibly a raven, which zoo officials can’t determine whether died or escaped.

Here we have relativization “from inside” a subordinate clause (in whether), yielding an “island violation”:

… which zoo officials can’t determine [ whether ___ died or escaped ]

Chris found this straightforwardly unacceptable, and I agree. But we can wonder how the writer ended up with this relative clause, especially when such island violations are usually rescued through the use of a resumptive pronoun:

… which zoo officials can’t determine [ whether they died or escaped ]

This strategy results in a semi-grammatical (but easily processed) clause, which I’ve calledResIsland (for Resumptive – Island) gapless relative. Examples are easy to find — so easy that I don’t collect all the ones that come past me.

So why go with a “zero subject” clause?

This is speculation, but one possible contribution is the fact that subordinate clauses in whether have counterparts in clases in either, with rather different syntax. So the journalist could have written something like:

… which either died or escaped, zoo officials can’t determine which

This is entirely grammatical, with no extraction from a subordinate clause, but just an ordinary relativization of a subject; the subordinate material is supplied by a variety of Sluicing in the complement of determine. That is, the combination of either and (the second) which plays the role of whether.

It looks like the writer committed to whether rather than either and then went ahead with syntax appropriate to either. A complex sort of syntactic blend, in other words.


One Response to “Calling resumptive pronouns”

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

    […] 6/21/12: Calling presumptive pronouns (link) [ex] a raven, which zoo officials can’t determine whether died or […]

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