April 02, 2004

Multiple coordination: the competition is over

The time has come for me to report that the competition I unwisely launched to find the largest number of coordinates in a grammatical English coordination that has appeared in a respectable printed prose source has now gotten completely out of control. The competition has been canceled. But before I thank the contestants and say farewell to this ill-advised campaign of data collection, let me just survey some of the madness that it led to, and draw a moral.

The numbers started getting quite big, very fast. Lance Nathan pointed out a 122-coordinate example from actual speech. George Carlin utters it at the end of one of his acts. It is on his live album Playin' With Your Head; there is a sound clip here, and having played it I can say that it is completely clear that the whole thing is one huge coordinate noun phrase (it is introduced as a few unpleasant and worrying things that had not been mentioned during the performance but which the audience was advised to think about when heading home). Lance provided a transcription:

Anal rape, quicksand, body lice, evil spirits, gridlock, acid rain, continental drift, labor violence, flash floods, rabies, torture, bad luck, calcium deficiency, falling rocks, cattle stampedes, bank failure, evil neighbors, killer bees, organ rejection, lynching, toxic waste, unstable dynamite, religious fanatics, prickly heat, price fixing, moral decay, hotel fires, loss of face, stink bombs, bubonic plague, neo-Nazis, friction, cereal weevils, failure of will, chain reaction, soil erosion, mail fraud, dry rot, voodoo curses, broken glass, snakebite, parasites, white slavery, public ridicule, faithless friends, random violence, breach of contract, family scandal, charlatans, transverse myelitis, structural defects, race riots, sunspots, rogue elephants, wax build-up, killer frost, jealous co-workers, root canals, metal fatigue, corporal punishment, sneak attacks, peer pressure, vigilantes, birth defects, false advertising, ungrateful children, financial ruin, mildew, loss of privileges, bad drugs, ill-fitting shoes, wide-spread chaos, Lou Gehrig's disease, stray bullets, runaway trains, chemical spills, locusts, airline food, shipwrecks, prowlers, bathtub accidents, faulty merchandise, terrorism, discrimination, wrongful cremation, carbon deposits, beef tapeworm, taxation without representation, escaped maniacs, sunburn, abandonment, threatening letters, entropy, nine-mile fever, poor workmanship, absentee landlords, solitary confinement, depletion of the ozone layer, unworthiness, intestinal bleeding, defrocked priests, loss of equilibrium, disgruntled employees, global warming, card sharks, poison meat, nuclear accidents, broken promises, contamination of the water supply, obscene phone calls, nuclear winter, wayward girls, mutual assured destruction, rampaging moose, the greenhouse effect, cluster headaches, social isolation, Dutch elm disease, the contraction of the Universe, paper cuts, eternal damnation, the wrath of God, and paranoia!

David Beaver had meanwhile gone beyond this, citing (here) a complete coordinative listing of the 230 members of a high school graduating class. Graduation lists were not what I had in mind as data, but I have to admit that this was punctuated as a grammatical English noun phrase, and it got printed.

But then Nicholas Widdows pointed out to me out that Rabelais slings around more than a few mean coodinate structures in his masterpiece of smut, Gargantua and Pantagruel (a filthy work which I hereby forbid you to look at): there is a coordinative listing of 225 games Gargantua played in book 1 chapter 22 (not quite topping Beaver's graduation list), and another that gives the 433 different kinds of cod ("ball-bag" in the Penguin translation) in book 3 chapter 28. [I was told this, anyway, but I didn't look it up. It turns out to be false, as reported by Language Hat: the list is not presented as a coordinate structure, it's just a list. --GKP, 4/8/04.]

So, with Nicholas Widdows wresting the championship away from Beaver, Nathan, and Crawford, we have reached 433, an order of magnitude above 42. And I think it is time to take stock of what we're doing here. When linguists say that there appears to be no limit on how many coordinates a coordinate structure may have, they generally go on to assert that this means the set of all possible sentences is infinite. I don't actually buy that: there also appears to be no anatomical limit on how long a worm can grow either, but that doesn't mean there are infinitely many worms, or even that there could be in principle. It all comes down to whether you choose to regard sentences as concrete like worms (registered by the senses, produced in real time in a manner that consumes energy) or as abstract like the integers (free of the spatiotemporal realm, unlimited except by the laws of logic, not necessarily registerable by anyone's senses even in principle). And that's metaphysics. There may be sound arguments for being a finitist nominalist (one who thinks everything in the universe is concrete and there's only a certain limited amount of it) or being a platonist (one who thinks there are abstract objects outside of space and time), but there aren't linguistic arguments that can settle such questions.

Nonetheless, linguists ain't just whistling Dixie when they say there are no linguistic limits of number of coordinates. To propose a grammar for English (or any natural language) that set a syntactically imposed length limit (in number of coordinates) on coordinate constructions would be a mistake. Even if you insist that you will not believe in coordinate structures of length n until you have actually seen one attested in speech or print, you will find that the attested cases go up to values of n that are really quite enormous. The class of all English sentences may be regarded as indefinitely huge though ultimately finite (like the set of all pine needles) or actually infinite (like the set of all integers), but either way, one thing is clear: no grammar that names a specific number as the maximim number of coordinates permitted in a coordinate structure is a correct grammar.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 2, 2004 05:29 PM