What’s he like?

In today’s comics feed, the One Big Happy for September 21st:

Playground Lady intends a WH question with (a reduced variant of) the auxiliary V is + a predicative PP headed by the P like ‘similar to’. Ruthie, ever keen on the reading not intended, hears a WH question with (a reduced variant of) the auxiliary V does (a PRS form of the V lexeme DO) + a complement VP headed by the BSE form like of the V lexeme LIKE ‘find enjoyable’. What is he like? (possible answer: He’s short and blond and funny-looking ) vs. What does he like? (possible answer: He likes playing video games).

Ruthie’s interpretation is, in fact, an uncooperative one in the context: Playground Lady, on being asked about Joe, admits that she doesn’t know him, so is (indirectly) asking for some guidance on how to find him. In this context, information about his physical appearance would be useful, but information about his favorite activities would probably not be.

is/does ambiguities induced by Auxiliary Reduction (AR) are hard to set up, given the very different syntaxes associated with the auxiliaries BE and DO, in combination with the fact that lack of accent is a necessary condition on AR (which, for DO, essentially means that AR is possible only in WH questions).

is/has ambiguities, however, are easy to set up, since both auxiliaries can occur with PSP complements (for BE, in the passive construction; for HAVE, in the perfect construction): He’s attacked every day as a variant of either He is attacked every day or He has attacked every day.

In a similar (but more complex) vein, there are would/had ambiguities, since would occurs with BSE complements (She would / She’d attack every day), had occurs with PSP complements (She had / She’d attacked every day), and there are “bare-PST/PSP” verbs (hit, bid, etc.) for which PST/PSP is identical to BSE: She’d hit them again and again as a variant of either She would hit [BSE] them again and again or She had hit [PSP] them again and again.

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