In a syntactic quandary

An abstract I have submitted for the 2013 Stanford Semantics Fest (on March 18th). The abstract is quite compressed; it had to fit in a single page of text.

In a syntactic quandary

You can’t always say what you want to say straightforwardly; sometimes, none of the possible modes of expression will quite do. In a syntactic quandary, you’re stuck cobbling together something for the moment.

Case in point: the possessive of certain coordinate NPs, in particular with a 1sg pronoun in coordination with a 3sg non-pronoun: my and Kim’s friends? Kim and mine’s friends? Or what?

Turns out there are at least 16 attested resolutions of this particular combination, each with something to say on its behalf and each with something working against it.

The principles in conflict include two having directly to do with the morphosyntax-semantics interface:

Match syntax to semantics: use holistic syntax for holistic interpretations, distributed syntax for distributed interpretations.

Consistency: Use the possessive suffix PS consistently to mark possession on NPs, whatever their internal composition.

And two opposed principles affecting the form of the coordinate NP:

Brevity: Choose shorter expressions.

Symmetry: Choose parallel syntax.

And two opposed principles having to do with ordering:

Salience: Put 1sg pronoun first in a coordination.

Politeness: Put 1sg pronoun second in a coordination.

And two having to do with avoiding disfavored sequences:

*Double Marking: Avoid 1sg+PS forms (I’s, me’s, my’s, mine’s), because they look like mistakes for possessive 1sg my.

*me and Johnny: Avoid me in non-object coordination.

And, finally, two favoring particular classes of pronouns:

Independent: Use Ind pronouns (like mine) in coordination, so that they will be accented (and to avoid disfavored me or I).

Reflexive: Use Refl pronouns (like myself) in coordination, so that they will be accented (and to avoid disfavored me or I).

There’s no choice that will satisfy all of these conditions, so different people favor different resolutions (often diffidently), and some reject the task, choosing instead a very different way of expressing the content. People paste together a kluge.

This has to be the case. There is no Great Programmer of Language L who writes the code for L, debugs it, and checks to make sure it covers all the eventualities. Even if there were, how could people access the code? Instead, what people have to do is discern, as best they can, regularities in the language around them from what they hear and read. This is a piecemeal process, and it works differently for different people (because they have different experiences and because no one has, or could have, a panoptic view of the whole business).

Main reference: AMZ, “Coordinate possessives”, LLog here.

3 Responses to “In a syntactic quandary”

  1. jlundell Says:

    There’s a semantic ambiguity as well (at least I think it’s semantic): if my friends and Kim’s friends are two distinct but overlapping sets, as we would ordinarily expect, are we talking about the union or intersection of those sets?

  2. the ridger Says:

    Indeed. Are “Kim and my friends” the same as “Kim’s and my friends”? “Kim’s and my friends don’t get along, but Pat and mine’s do”.

  3. concussion | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] still scheduled to give a paper at the Semantics Fest on Monday. I’m up for that, but I still need to work out a way to get […]

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