May 31, 2004

Construal in Houston

According to the Houston Chronicle, "an 18-wheeler carrying 30,000 pounds of eggs overturned" today, "[sending] an avalanche of eggs sailing over the side of the overpass, crushing a state Department of Transportation truck at a construction site below". No one was seriously hurt, but the clean-up was apparently a messy, smelly business. The supervisor, Gary Babb, explained that "we were able to save a few cases of eggs, in case you need any." But when his co-workers brought lunch to the clean-up crew, said Babb, "They brought us scrambled eggs, you believe that? Sick sense of humor, these people."

We've now reached the essential "linguistic hook" that you've no doubt been waiting for. What's the structure of "Sick sense of humor, these people"?

It's related somehow to "These people have a sick sense of humor" -- but it's not quite right to take just any sentence of the form "These PluralNouns have a SingularNounPhrase" and transform it to "SingularNounPhrase, these PluralNouns". Or is it?

I queried Google with the pattern "these * have a", and tried transforming the first half a dozen examples with a suitable structure. Mostly not too bad, the results. Sounds kind of like one of those parodies of Bush 41 that used to be popular:

These cars have a lot of problems. ?Lot of problems, these cars.
These places have a presence of their own. ?Presence of their own, these places.
These eggs have a wonderful tale to tell. ?Wonderful tale to tell, these eggs.
These zills have a beautiful tone. ?Beautiful tone, these zills.
These comics have a lot of sex in them. ?Lot of sex in them, these comics.
These scenarios have a common theme. ?Common theme, these scenarios.

You definitely need some sort of modifier or quantifier, though:

These films have a plot. *Plot, these films.
These women have a dream. *Dream, these women.

And it's apparently not great for the complement of have to get too long:

These teams have a concentrated focus on the Xbox Full Spectrum Warrior gaming front!
???Concentrated focus on the Xbox Full Spectrum Warrior gaming front, these teams!

Definite subjects with determiners other than these are similar in quality:

The Amish have a distinctive culture. ?Distinctive culture, the Amish.
Those Germans have a word for everything. ?Word for everything, those Germans.

but plural indefinite subjects seem worse:

Stroke survivors have a high risk of dementia. ??High risk of dementia, stroke survivors.
Africa's economic problems have a medical solution. *Medical solution, Africa's economic problems.

though by now all the examples are starting to sound like the slurred dialogue of stereotypical drunks. And anyhow, surely there are some more general principles at work here...

[Update: Haj Ross asks

Q: is this mebbe the same rule that does

  Your cousin has been working here a long time. ->   (*has) been working here a long time, your cousin.

I'm not sure about this. Even without the postposed subject, you get things like the punchline of the famous story about "Silent Cal" Coolidge returning to his home town in Vermont after the end of his presidency; going to the local story, selecting a few items, and bringing them to the cash register, without saying a word; the storekeeper ringing up the purchases, also in silence, taking payment and making change, and then closing the encounter by saying

  "Been away."

to which President Coolidge responded


and left the store.

Of course, you could also just comment "Sick sense of humor." without the postposed subject, if you were a stereotypically laconic New Englander instead of a stereotypically garrulous Texan.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 31, 2004 11:40 PM