Non-parallel gaps in Jackson Hole

(Mostly geekily technical, but I hope you’ll persevere.)

From John Lawler a while back, a link to an Industry Tap story of 2/27/15, “Wyoming Vertical Farm Produces 37,000 Pounds of Greens on the Side of a Parking Garage!” by Marshall Smith. As John said, along with the intrinsic interest of the story (a bit more below), there’s this opening sentence:

(1) Jackson Hole, Wyoming, may not be a place many people pick out on a map to travel to, let alone even know exists.

(with a continuation about it still garnering significant tourist numbers). People will tend to judge (1) as a WTF sentence, awkward and hard to understand at best, simply ungrammatical at worst. The ingredients of the problem are the let alone construction and the gaps of relativization in two contrasted constituents. Both ingredients have been studied in some detail, but not, so far as I know, in combination as in (1).

First, the story, which is fascinating. To cope with Jackson Hole’s harsh winters and short growing season, which limit the vegetables and fruits that can be grown locally, the Vertical Harvest project proposed “a multi-story greenhouse that will be built on the side of a parking garage, a rare vertical farm capable of growing tomatoes, herbs, and microgreens”:

Back to (1). The awkwardness of this sentence could have been fixed by packaging its parts without the let alone construction, say like this:

(2) Jackson Hole, Wyoming, may not be the first place people pick out on a map to travel to – many people don’t even know it exists — but it does garner significant tourist numbers.

As it turns out, somebody at Industry Tap recognized that there might be a problem with (1) and decided to fix it, by just omitting the part about most people not knowing Jackson Hole exists; the story now begins, unproblematically:

(3) Jackson Hole, Wyoming, may not be the first place people pick out on a map to travel to, but it does garner significant tourist numbers.

Now to the linguistics. First, I’ll mark (1) up to show important parts of its structure:

(1′) Jackson Hole, Wyoming, may not be
a place
many people
[ [pick out ___on a map to travel to ___], let alone [even know ___ exists] ].

a place is followed by a two-part relative clause modifying it. The subject of the relative clause is many people, and its VP (set off by square brackets) comes in two parts (joined by let alone), both VPs (also set off by square brackets), each with a gap of relativization — a missing constituent (indicated by the underlines) that is understood as coreferential with a place: not many people pick out that place on a map to travel to, many people don’t even know (that) that place exists.

There’s a lot of complexity here, including the multiple gaps in the first VP (a main gap and a “parasitic gap”) and the way negation works (it’s marked by an overt not in the main clause of (1), but plays out, syntactically and semantically, in the two contrasting VPs in the relative clause). I’ll set those complexities aside to concentrate on let alone and the gaps of relativization.

The let alone construction, as investigated by Fillmore et al. (Charles J. Fillmore, Paul Kay & Mary Catherine O’Connor, “Regularity and idiomaticity in grammatical constructions: The case of let alone”. Language 64.3.501-38 (1988) — Stable URL here), has let alone functioning as a coordinating conjunction (an idiomatic one) each of whose conjuncts (the paired VPs in (1′)) is or contains a contrastively focused element.

Then the problem with (1) comes down to the pairing of the conjuncts

[pick out ___on a map to travel to ___]  and  [even know ___ exists]

In the first conjunct, the gaps of relativization are object gaps (direct object of pick out as the main gap, object of the preposition to as the parasitic gap). But in the second conjunct, the gap of relativization is a subject gap (the subject of exists). So the conjuncts are not parallel.

Now, I’ve posted a number of times (mostly on Language Log) on the larger topic of failures of parallelism in coordination. Despite what many handbooks say, many types of non-parallel coordination are entirely innocuous, some types present difficulties in interpretation (at least out of context), and a few types present grave difficulties in interpretation (at least for some speakers). The coordination of a constituent with an object gap and one with a subject gap (in either order) is often put in the last set, sometimes indeed just flatly judged to be ungrammatical.

Start with section 2 of my Language Log posting “Astounding Coordinations (continued)” of 4/12/05, where I look at two examples:

(4) people who [ I’m not going to give ___ a cox-2 ] and also [ ___ have a history of ulcers ]

(object + subject)

(5) which you presumably have to know [ ___ is there ] and [ how to get to ___ ]

(subject + object)

and note some literature in which it’s claimed that all such examples are ungrammatical. Then in “Object gap + subject gap” of 1/27/12 on this blog, I look at a larger collection of examples (including four from my own pen — well, keyboard), with the following concluding note:

Some speakers judge examples with non-parallel gaps to be unacceptable, others judge them to be of borderline acceptability, and still others find them acceptable, period.

When I judge such examples out of context, I tend to judge harshly, but when they’re in context (including the previous context of my own writing!), I often have no trouble with them. Example (1) suffers from having virtually no preceding context (just the headline), but also from the enormous complexity of the let alone construction, and I can’t bring myself to warm to it. I’d want to shift to something like (2).

2 Responses to “Non-parallel gaps in Jackson Hole”

  1. Gary Says:

    Apart from the grammatical problems, there’s a logical one:

    Jackson Hole, Wyoming, may not be a place many people know exists, let alone pick out on a map to travel to.

    would make sense.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      This still has subject gap conjoined with object gap, but it’s better than (1) in the posting, considerably so, because it gets the scalarity contrast — in Fillmore et al. — right. Nice observation.

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