March 30, 2004

Hunting for multiple-coordinate coordination constructions

I'm working with Rodney Huddleston on a textbook-size introduction to English grammar, and I recently came to a passage where we make and illustrate the point that coordinate structures don't appear to have any grammatical limit on the number of coordinate subparts. You get not just two coordinates (Starsky and Hutch) or three (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), or four (Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice), but any number. The temptation here is to show this by simply inventing boring examples with larger numbers of examples: We invited Bob, Carol, Ted, Alice, and Bruce (5 coordinates), and so on, and we were on the point of doing that, but it seemed to me it would be much better to illustrate with real examples. And it didn't take long to find a source with some real beauties.

You must understand, I'm not leaning toward corpus fetishism, the perverted insistence on using only real examples from a corpus of texts for your illustrations, no matter how much space that might waste. I just thought it would be livelier here to have some real, over-the-top examples of four, five, or six coordinates. And it was not hard to find them. For some reason, remembering some rich, ripe use of the English language, I took down from myself Lawrence Levine's The Opening of the American Mind. A quote I saw there led me to take down the book next to it, the one Levine is responding to: Allan Bloom's long, gloomy, preposterous jeremiad on everything wrong with American students, The Closing of the American Mind (1987). I really hit paydirt there. The extended polemic against rock music turned out to be particularly rich. These examples are all from pages 74 to 78:

  1. There is room only for the intense, changing, crude and immediate. [4 coordinates]
  2. People of future civilizations will wonder at this and find it as incomprehensible as we do the caste system, witch-burning, harems, cannibalism, and gladiatorial combats. [5 coordinates]
  3. Nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place in such tableaux. [6 coordinates]

Great stuff. When Bloom gets going, he really loses it, the old fool. His excess of rhetoric is as masturbatory as the state he claims rock music gets young people into. How did his ridiculous book ever become a best-seller? I don't know. But I cherish it as a fund of examples.

I'm now wondering if I could find Bloom using a 7-coordinate example. And I'm wondering about what might be the largest number of coordinates ever recorded in an attested example from broadly respectable printed prose.

Gosh, if I muse aloud like this, people may start emailing them to me. All they have to do is realize that my login name is probably pullum and that I'm well known to be at — not that I'd ever reveal that on the web for fear of spambots.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 30, 2004 06:31 PM