March 09, 2004

Clinton and Me

No, not Clinton and me. I'm referring to Clinton and Me, a recent book by Mark Katz, the speechwriter and humorist who wrote much of Clinton and Gore's best material.

The book is wonderful, in and of itself, but what inspires this posting is the fact that it contains one of the few naturally occurring parasitic gap constructions I've ever come across -- in the index, no less.

A brief Linguist List discussion does a nice job of briefly laying out what parasitic gaps are and why they are interesting. Peggy Speas explains it quite clearly:

A parasitic gap is a gap that is in a position where you'd think it should violate an island condition, but it doesn't, because there is another gap in the sentence.

For example, in a, the gap is inside an "adjunct island", and in b, it's inside a complex NP island. As expected, they are ungrammatical:

a. *What did you wash an apple before you ate ____?
b. *Clinton is a guy who people who meet ____ usually vote for Democrats.

However, the grammaticality significantly improves if there is another (well-formed) gap that the offending one can "be parasitic on":

a. What did you wash ___ before you ate ___
b. Clinton is a guy who people who meet___ usually like ___.

The parasitic gap is still in an island, so it is important in GB (or any other theory of islands) to figure out what it is about the additional gap that makes it so much more grammatical.

Like so-called donkey sentences, parasitic gaps come up vastly more often in linguistics papers than in real life, so I always find it interesting when I spot one. In Clinton and Me, the index is rather nontraditional, with entries like

  • Law School
    • Parents Wanted Me to Go To, 57
    • Girlfriend's Parents Wanted Me To Go To, 257
    • Both My Brothers Go To, 57
    • I Might As Well Have Gone To, 330
  • Name Dropping, Stray Historical
    • Francis of Assissi, 269
    • Carl Linnaeus, 127
    • ...
  • Name Dropping, Gratuitous Beltway
    • ...
You get the idea. Can you spot the parasitic gap in this index entry?
  • Hair, My
    • Mom cuts my, 21
    • Mussed by Woman's Sweater I Wore To and Had to Return to Rightful Owner at Big Meeting, 22
    • Barbara Streisand affectionately strokes my, 197
    • Adolescent obsession with, 47
    • Insights into the difference between Republican vs,
      • Democrats' hair, 31

Yup. It's:

  • My hair[, which was] mussed by [the] woman's sweater I wore ___ to and had to return ___ to [its] rightful owner at [a] big meeting.

Postscript: In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm an old friend of the Katz family. Go buy the book! (That's the sort of shameless promotion I hope you will read without criticizing.)

[Update and warning: Please see this posting for an explanation of why this example is actually not a parasitic gap construction after all.]

Posted by Philip Resnik at March 9, 2004 10:30 AM