March 09, 2004

Double Right Node Raising in Nature

Some of the sentences that turn up in discussions of syntax are rather exotic. On the one hand, that gives rise to skepticism on the part of some, who take this to mean that syntactic theory is based on artificial data that doesn't reflect real language use. On the other hand, the interest of some of these examples has been taken to be an argument against total reliance on corpora of naturally occuring utterances, since interesting and important data may never turn up there. So, as Phil Resnik mentioned, it is reassuring when, from time to time, one comes across a natural example of one of these exotic sentences.

Here's another example, one that I encountered years ago when I translated the manual describing the implementation of the mathematical function library for a Japanese computer. (In the glosses A stands for accusative case, which roughly speaking indicates that the preceding Noun Phrase is the direct object.)

heihookansuuoNyuutonrahusonhooo seigenkansuuobekikyuusuuhooo siyoositekeisan suru
square root functionANewton-Raphson methodA sine functionApower series methodA usingcomputes
The square root function is computed using the Newton-Raphson method; the sine function is computed using the power series method.
The Japanese does not actually contain any passives but I've translated it using the passive because the Japanese clauses do not have overt subjects and it is not clear what the subject really ought to be. A more literal translation is:
The mathematical function library computes the square root function using the Newton-Raphson method and the sine function using the power series method.

This is a remarkable if not bizarre-looking sentence. It has four accusative Noun Phrases followed by two verbs. NP NP NP NP V V is not something we expect to encounter. What it is is a derivative of this:

Newton-Raphson methodAusingsqrt functionAcomputingpower series methodAusingsine functionAcomputes

Here the two conjuncts have all their verbs and the "using" clauses come before the "computing" clauses. An intermediate step is to put the "using" clauses between the object and the main verb, like this:

sqrt functionANewton-Raphson methodAusingcomputingsine functionApower series methodAusingcomputes

This yields a structure in which each of the two conjuncts ends in the sequence "using computes". When you have a sequence of conjoined clauses of this type, Japanese allows all but the verb of the last clause to be deleted. This is known as Right Node Raising. As this sentence shows, Right Node Raising applies not only to a single verb but to a clause final sequence. In our example, both of the verbs at the end of the first conjunct have been deleted.

This sentence is quite natural and easy to read. It didn't even occur to me that it was remarkable when I first read it; it was only when I started to translate it that I realized that it was interesting. I haven't tried any Japanese parsers in quite a while, but the last time I did, none of them could handle such sentences.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 9, 2004 10:07 PM