VPE way over the line


(If you’re averse to technicalities of linguistics, this isn’t for you.)

Our text for the day comes from the tv show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, in the episode “Malice in Wonderland”, first broadcast on 3/28/12:

Olivia [Hodges’s mother]: Besides, I haven’t been totally honest with you about my romantic situation.
Hodges: What, the count?
(1) Olivia: He wasn’t a count. It’s possible he doesn’t even know how to ___.

The underscore marks the position of the elliptical material, in this case a BSE-form VP  count ‘recite numbers in ascending order’. We then cast around for an antecedent VP in the text; this wouldn’t have to be a BSE-form VP (divergences in inflectional form between antecedent and ellipsis are common in Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE); there are Pages on this blog with examples, and an index of them) — but there’s no plausible VP to be found in this text. Instead, there’s only a noun count ‘a rank of European nobleman’, which is phonologically and orthographically identical to the verb count, but otherwise has nothing to do, etymologically or synchronically, with this noun. The example is flagrantly zeugmatic.

It’s not that nouns can never be antecedents for an elliptical VP in VPE — discussion of such cases below — but this particular noun is totally unsuited to be an antecedent for this particular ellipsis. It’s all an elaborate play on words. (For the record, I was delighted by it, all the more so because it appeared in a dialogue that, though light-hearted in tone, was not jokey in character and concerned a serious matter (the abject failures of Olivia’s supposed fiancé). It was a pleasant surprise.)

The complexities of VPE are many. Although for some time, it was supposed that all the instances were endophoric, with an entecedent in the linguistic context, there are respectable numbers of exophoric examples (the music strikes up, I turn to my companion and ask, “Shall we ___?”, with an ellipsis conveying ‘… dance (this dance together)’. Here I’m looking only at endophoric cases.

(I’m also looking only at elliptical VPs, though the VPE construction affects other categories as well, a fact that led Ivan Sag, 40 years ago, to suggest the alternative name Post-Auxiliary Ellipsis (PAE).)

The usual way of talking about endophoric VPE is, as above, in terms of expressions that serve as ellipses and antecedents, which is what leads us to look at disparities in the inflectional forms. But I need to point out that we could conceptualize the antecedent-ellipsis relation as one between referents, with actual expressions functioning as links to those referents.

Digression: This is essentially the view I take about so-called “dangling modifiers”, which are special instances of SPARs, subjectless predicative adjuncts (note subjectlessness, a kind of ellipsis) for which the referent of the missing subject has to be supplied: in a default, non-dangling, case, this referent is supplied by the subject of the clause to which the adjunct is attached: in ___ Looking at the plans, Kim saw that the flanges were missing, the elliptical  subject, indicated by underscores, picks up its referent from the subject of the main clause, Kim, underlined here. In a “dangling modifier”, the referent gets picked up from somewhere else: in ___Looking at the plans, the flanges were obviously missing, the referent is the person whose thoughts are reported in the main clause.

Back to VPE. Like other ellipsis constructions, VPE occasionally involves an antecedent that is not directly supplied by an expression in the linguistic context, but is instead (speaking intuitively) supplied by something “inside” another expression. Derived lexemes are customarily said to be “islands” for anaphora, so such examples are violations of an Anaphoric Island Constraint; see postings linked to on my “Anaphoric islands” Page.

Two VPE examples from my files:

(15) title of column by Tom Bodett, reprinted in the December 2008 Funny Times, p. 21: A Writer Who Doesn’t ___ [ellipsis of BSE write]

(23) from NCIS episode (“Witness”, from 2005) seen in re-runs: A: Your petty officer won’t admit to any involvement. /  B: I don’t believe he was ___. [ellipsis of PSP involved].

In (15) the verbal referent for the ellipsis comes from a verbal referent for the verb lexeme WRITE “inside of” the derived noun WRITER.; in other terms used to describe this situation, an occurrence of the noun WRITER “evokes” writing.  In (15) the verbal referent for the ellipsis comes from a verbal referent for the verb lexeme INVOLVE “inside of” the derived noun INVOLVEMENT; alternatively, we can say that an occurrence of the noun INVOLVEMENT “evokes” involving things.

Now consider variants of (1) that don’t suffer from zeugma. For instance:

(2) His count of the audience was accurate, though frankly I hadn’t thought he could ___.

This, it seems, to me, isn’t bad with the ellipsis understood as ‘count the audience’, but dubious understood as ‘count, recite numbers in ascending order’, but that might just have to do with the very restricted contexts in which the latter use is possible.

The larger point is that a noun can serve as antecedent for VPE, under the right conditions.

Bonus: a different sort of example from my files:

(19) Malcolm Gladwell, “Offensive Play”, New Yorker 10/19/09, p. 52, quoting a football player: “They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have ___. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting.”

Now this could be interpreted as having an elliptical PSP practiced, linked to an antecedent instance of PRACTICE, a verb lexeme zero-derived from the noun PRACTICE That is, the ellipsis would be understood as

(19′) … I probably shouldn’t have practiced.

But (19′) seems very awkward to me; instead, I would understand the ellipsis as

(9″) … I probably shouldn’t have gone to practice.

(with an instance of he noun PRACTICE “inside of” the ellipsis.

I’ve been spending some time inventing examples where the antecedent doesn’t contain a zero-derived nominal counterpart to the elliptical verb, but has instead a noun that merely evokes the relevant verb, as stove evokes cook — but they require an awful lot of good will to interpret. For instance,

The new apartment comes with a fantastic new stove, but we decided we wouldn’t ___.

where the ellipsis is to be understood as

… we wouldn’t use the stove, we wouldn’t cook

One Response to “VPE way over the line”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Depending on context, I might take that last example to mean “We decided we wouldn’t take the apartment“, for reasons that might or might not have anything to do with the stove.

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