Feuilleton: government by nearest in Baltimore

In the NYT on the 1st, in the story “Baltimore Police Complete Initial Inquiry Into Death of Prisoner”, this quote from Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby:

“While we have and will continue to leverage the information received by the department, we are not relying solely on their findings but rather on the facts that we have gathered and verified.”

This would be labeled as a straightforward grammatical error by many commenters: a failure of parallelism in coordination, the result of failing to include all necessary words (possibly as a consequence of failing to attend to the syntax of sentences as they are being produced):

NOT we have and will continue to leverage …

BUT we have leveraged and will continue to leverage …

The have of the perfect governs a PSP complement, but there is no PSP VP in the example, only a BSE VP (continue to leverage …) governed by the modal will, an infinitival VP (to leverage …) governed by continue, and a BSE VP (leverage …) governed by infinitival to. The second part of the coordination is fine, but the first part fails the government requirement on the perfect. Put another way, the government requirement in the first conjunct is disregarded, and we see government determined by the nearest governor to the affected VP. In short, government by the nearest (GbN).

I looked at such examples — most are less complex than this one, along the lines of “If you have, or would, apply” — in one section of a Language Log posting, “The thin line between error and mere variaton, Part 4: Do I misspeak?” of 7/26/04. One striking finding there was that GbN examples are incredibly frequent — in speech, in informal writing, and (impressively) in edited writing from careful writers; the question was then whether they should all be treated as inadvertent errors.

In a 12/3/09 posting on this blog, I returned to the question, writing:

I used to view such examples as lapses in grammar, but over the years I have softened my assessment. As far as I know, I don’t use this sort of government myself, but I have come to think that for many people it’s not an inadvertent error, as many usage advisers have thought, but just an aspect of a grammar somewhat different from mine — a variant construction.

I took it to be significant that very few people who produced GbN examples treated them as inadvertent errors (there are grammatical sticklers, of course, who hold explicit opinions about many things, including GbN): they didn’t spontaneously “correct” them, and in fact they resisted correction. I referred to

the difficulty of teaching people to avoid such examples in formal writing — students are often puzzled to be told that they have to replace “could (and have) watched people”, which they judge to be entirely natural, by the longer and clunkier “could watch (and have watched) people”

which in combination with the sheer frequency of GbN,

brought me to think that these elliptical coordinations represented just another variant construction in English, one that I don’t use myself.

In the posting, I go through some of the details in fleshing out this “variant construction” proposal. (And no, “logic” doesn’t require parallelism.)

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