March 12, 2004

Clausal coordination of nonidentical illocutions (parental advisory: nerdy!)

Can I get a little bit more nerdy than is normal on Language Log? I don't mean as nerdy as Poser when he is hot on the trail of some neat fact about the native Japanese origin of the kanji character for a non-rice paddy, or Liberman sitting on a Japanese subway train watching teenagers texting and actually working out their transmission rates in bits per second, or whatever the two of them might discuss when they get together for power-nerd talks, like, I don't know, the influence of orthographic errors in the log books of syphilitic Portuguese sea captains on the evolution of the prosody of the Middle Korean word for camel spit. But I need to get just a little bit nerdy. You'll forgive me?

Good. Because I want to briefly discuss a technical issue in syntax about whether clauses of dissimilar illocutional force can be joined in a coordination. John Robert Ross, in his famous 1967 doctoral dissertation, presumed the answer is no, and used this fact in an argument. The supposed constraint was also discussed briefly in my own 1976 Ph.D. thesis. I think I'm now inclined to say that there is no such syntactic constraint at all.

You don't really need to know about Ross's argument. All right, since you ask: he was arguing against deriving supplementary relative clauses transformationally from coordinations. That is, he thought he had a case against saying that the deep structure of Even Clarence, who is wearing mauve socks, is a swinger (people just loved goofy examples in those days) was the deep structure that also yields this:

Even Clarence is a swinger and Clarence is wearing mauve socks.

The argument was that clauses of different illocutionary force can't be joined with a coordinator, so there would be trouble deriving Is even Clarence, who is wearing mauve socks, a swinger? -- it would have to have a deep structure that was not well formed, namely the deep structure counterpart of this:

*Is even Clarence a swinger? and Clarence is wearing mauve socks.

I was reminded of this argument this morning when I saw the following sentence in a letter to the editor in the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

They do not know what they are losing and don't give them a dime!

That is a declarative + imperative clausal coordination, and it seems natural enough to take the wind out of the sails of anyone who wants to claim that you can't have such a thing, and to refute the notion of a syntactic constraint that bans clause coordinations of differing illocutionary force.

The reverse case, with an imperative followed by a declarative, is also easy to illustrate, because of this construction:

Make one little remark and they jump all over you.

Sure, the interpretation of the first clause is not that of a directive or command; but don't confuse semantics with syntax. Syntactically that first coordinate clause is an imperative, I think.

Now, the trouble with main-clause interrogatives as the first part of a coordinate structure, as in the starred example about Clarence above, is that when you try to write them down you don't know where to put the question mark, and if you try to speak them you don't know what to do with your intonation, and when the hearer tries to interpret what you've said they get the odd feeling that you asked a question but instead of waiting for the answer you plunged into a statement. So there are orthographic, phonological, and pragmatic difficulties. If we make sure the interrogative is the second of the two coordinates, it is much easier to envisage examples, especially with a rhetorical question as the interrogative coordinate:

I don't even have shoes to wear and do you hear me complain?

In case you feel the need for some real, attested examples, I found some easily and rapidly, using a small collection of classic novels:

You have read this strange and terrific story, Margaret; and do you not feel your blood congeal with horror like that which even now curdles mine? (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein)

I cannot imagine you sitting in an office over a ledger, and do you wear a tall hat and an umbrella and a little black bag? (Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage)

In thirty seconds, as it seemed certain then, I would have been overboard; and do you think I would not have laid hold of the first thing that came in my way -- oar, life-buoy, grating -- anything?

I also found, in the same search, an attested case of an imperative + interrogative coordinations:

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)

It has not escaped my notice that the older authors like to punctuate with a semicolon where the illocutionary force changes; but that is hardly enough to indicate that we are not dealing with coordination. I think enough evidence is piling up that if Ross had been faced with it all in 1967 he wouldn't have proceeded further with an argument based on a putative general condition banning coordination of clauses with dissimilar illocutionary force. And in that case section 2.3.10 of my Ph.D. thesis (Rule Interaction and the Organization of a Grammar, published by Garland, New York, 1979, pp. 184-186), where I argue that the constraint works better on cycle-final structures rather than deep structures, would not have been needed.

Nothing in particular follows from this. I just thought I would use Language Log as a place to note the facts. All right, you think I'm a syntax nerd. Well I'm not. I'm a sexy super fun wild and crazy guy, O.K.?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 12, 2004 04:45 PM