What do we want? Change!

The Mother Goose and Grimm strip for 1/29

turns on an ambiguity in the VP, which is of the form:

want/need + NP1 + in NP2

The ambiguity appears more generally, in VPs of the form:

 want/need + NP + PredicativeComplement

The ambiguity involves two different constituent structures for the VP, with concomitant differences in the argument structures, and indeed, in the semantics of the primary verbs of desire, want and need: desiring a thing — the much more common semantics, seen in Mother Goose’s assertion:

I want that dress in the window

— versus desiring a change of state (an inchoative ‘I want that dress to be in / get into the window’ or causative ‘I want that dress to be put into the window’ reading), presupposed by Grimmy’s objection:

But that dress is in the window

The constituent structures.

The object-desire VP has the desire V plus a direct object NP. This direct object consists of a head NP with a postmodifying predicative complement functioning like an abbreviated, or reduced, relative clause: that dress in the window ‘that dress that’s in the window’. The range of reduced relatives is fairly considerable, embracing a variety of PPs — that dress from Wichita, that dress with flowers on it ‘that dress that has flowers on it’, that dress without any flowers on it ‘that dress that has no flowers on it’ — and a variety of adjectivals, both AdjPs (that dress prettier than mine) and participial VPs functioning as predicate adjectivals (that dress screaming its fashion sense at us, that dress bought on sale at Nordstrom’s).

Meanwhile, that dress in the window here is indeed a NP constituent, serving here as a direct object, but serving elsewhere as a prepositional object (I marveled at that dress in the window), subject (That dress in the window astonishes me), and predicate nominal (Their present was that dress in the window).

It’s important that the head NP of this constituent be one that’s generally comfortable with restrictive relative clause modifiers. Personal-pronoun NPs are not, so it in the window ‘the thing in the window’ is terrible, and want it in the window won’t be understood as an object-desire VP.

The change-desire VP has the desire V plus two other constituents, a NP in the position of a direct object and a predicative complement, the two latter two taken together understood as a description of the desired state:

I want that dress in the window ‘what I want is that that dress comes / gets to be in the window, I want that dress to be in the window’.

The desired state in my canonical example has the dress in a location; other predicative complements are possible (but often take some contextualizing, since change-desire VPs are minority options). So, with a predicate adjective:

I want that dress fancy ‘I want that dress to be / become / be made fancy’.

(Whether a change-desire VP is to be correctly analyzed as having two constituents or three is a complex and subtle matter that I’m just going to finesse here. But see the discussion of “small clauses” in my 6/20/15 posting “caused traffic to snarl, as well as some injuries and accidents”.)

One Response to “What do we want? Change!”

  1. Mitch4 Says:

    Not entirely the same constructions, but I thought there are some similarities to that one in what’s happening in this “F-Minus”. The speech balloon reads “If you’re hungry, I made breakfast in bed” and the drawing shows a silent woman in bathrobe standing beside a bed where a man (speaking that bit of dialogue) is tucked in and reading a book, but has on top of the covers various cooking tools, such as a frying pan with food in it (scrambled eggs very likely), a waffle iron, and other food items.


    The linguistic crux is between the fixed expression “breakfast in bed” where “in bed” specifies where the person eating it will be located, and (the comic twist) “in bed” specifying where he made breakfast.

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