Failure of parallelism

In a NYT story on the 4th, “Dangerous Passage and Multiplying Fines as Ice Is Left Uncleared” [in print: “With No One To Clear It, Ice Creates A Dangerous Passage”] by Winnie Hu and Ken Schwencke:

A bulk of the issue is that in vacant buildings it can be difficult to determine who the owner is, who is responsible for maintenance, or to compel payment.

The crucial bit, with some constituency indicated:

can be difficult [to determine [who the owner is, who is responsible for maintenance]], or [to compel payments]

I caught this immediately, because I had trouble parsing the thing. I stumbled on what felt to me like a failure of parallelism, even though part of what’s going on is a familiar pattern in coordination.

Background: From a 2/22/11 posting of mine about the example

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

I wrote there that

Neal Whitman is the great student of this type of coordination, which he calls multiple-level coordination (MLC), because the conjuncts are structurally at different levels: in (1) the first two conjuncts, hairy and smelly, are structurally lower (they are complements of are) than the third conjunct, have big noses, which is structurally at the same level as are.

… By Whitman’s second posting [on the phenomenon] …, he … 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.

… [Whitman suggests that in (1),] the higher verb are is understood as distributing over the first two conjuncts, but is only realized on the first. [are hairy + are smelly] Or in other terms, the second conjunct has an ellipted verb are, with its antecedent in the first conjunct.

… Whitman has developed this simple but powerful idea, in which MLCs involve an ellipted verb, in a long series of postings covering many different sorts of MLCs

So taking

who the owner is, who is responsible for maintenance

as elliptical for

who the owner is, or who is responsible for maintenance

eliminates some of the puzzle, but we aren’t home yet. To see the rest of the puzzle, just reduce the first two conjuncts to one (say, the first):

can be difficult to determine who the owner is or to compel payment

This has to determine who the owner is and to compel payment as conjoined complements of be difficult, and that’s where I still have a problem (I’m fine with MLCs like (1)). The VPs with head Vs determine and compel strike me as insufficiently parallel, for reasons I do not at the moment understand. But there it is.

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