MLC in the news

A side-product of abortion in the news: many many cites like these two:

[coordination with and] Mr. Romney has said that abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest and when it would save the mother’s life. (Jim Rutenberg, “The Lowest Common Denominator and the 2012 Race for President”, NYT 8/17/12, p. A15)

[coordination with or] Generally, federal law prohibits federal funding for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. (Louise Radnofsky, “Remarks Put Spotlight on Definition of Rape”, WSJ online, 8/22/12, here)

These are routine examples of a construction type that has been disparaged as unacceptable — because of a failure of parallelism — by usage critics for at least a century; thanks to the work of Neal Whitman, it’s now known as multiple-level coordination (MLC).

Extended discussion of examples like

(1) They are hairy, smelly, and have big noses.

in this posting of mine. The perceived failure of parallelism in (1) can be fixed by supplying the “missing coordinator” (as some handbooks put it):

(1′) They are hairy and smelly and have big noses.

or by making smelly parallel to are hairy and have big noses by supplying another copula for it:

(1″) They are hairy, are smelly, and have big noses.

The structural issue is that if hairy and smelly in (1) are to be understood as conjoined complements of are, then they are at a lower structural level than the VP conjunct have big noses — hence the MLC label. Similarly in the abortion examples, where if rape and incest are to be understood as conjoined complements of in cases of, then they are at a lower structural level than the adverbial conjunct  in when.

There are examples where rape, incest, and the adverbial in when are at the same level and so are structurally parallel (though not of the same syntactic category), as here, where they are items in a list:

My position on abortion is that of the Episcopal Church, that abortion is wrong with three exceptions — rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. (Henry Idema, “My Take – The Politics of Abortion” 8/22/12, here)

I suspect that few readers see any more problem with the other rape-incest-when coordinations than with this one. And I think that’s fine, despite handbook complaints. As I said in my MLC posting:

On MLC, linguists have been willing, sometimes reluctantly, to entertain the possibility that educated usage accommodates certain classes of MLCs. Whitman’s first posting on the subject “Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus” (2006, here) quoted CGEL (p. 1335) on “coordination at unlike levels”:

“The status of such examples is uncertain. They are more likely to be found in casual speech than in more carefully monitored speech or writing–but they do occur in the latter….”

By Whitman’s second posting, “It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks” (here), he too was considering that some of the examples might simply be grammatical. It’s certainly hard to notice them unless you’re looking for them — and then you find them all over the place. My own conclusion is that things like (1) are fully grammatical, instances of a coordination construction that’s available to speakers of English, though some may choose not to use it.

So now we can get back to thinking about abortion, rape, incest, and the rest.


One Response to “MLC in the news”

  1. August Links « Literal-Minded Says:

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