March 11, 2005

More WTF coordinations

As I noted in an update to my post on my reaction to an odd coordination that I read, Neal Whitman wrote to tell me about his recent article in Language 80.3 (pp. 403-434) on this topic, entitled "Semantics and Pragmatics of English Verbal Dependent Coordination" (sorry, access to Project Muse required for the link to work). Neal also provided the following additional examples:

It makes it hard for him to get [his stuff done] and [to bed on time].
She wants [an engagement ring] and [her boyfriend to stop dragging his feet].
Don't eat [fast food], or [at restaurants, food-service companies, or caterers].

The last of these examples is perfectly fine for me, underscoring the apprehensiveness I had about saying that only phrases with the same syntactic category can be conjoined: [fast food] is a noun phrase, and [at restaurants ...] is a prepositional phrase. The other two examples are different, though; my knee-jerk, WTF reaction is to give the first a question mark (by which I mean that it's somehow borderline between grammatical and ungrammatical) and the second a star (by which I mean that it's ungrammatical -- except that it improves somewhat if a for is added before the second conjunct).

Mike Pope also wrote to comment:

Would you say that this is a form of zeugma? The small child of a friend of mine once said "The sun makes you hot and sneeze," which seems at least similar in spirit to what you've got here.

As explained here, zeugma is "A construction in which a single word, especially a verb or an adjective, is applied to two or more nouns when its sense is appropriate to only one of them or to both in different ways, as in He took my advice and my wallet."

This [my advice] and [my wallet] (noun phrase and noun phrase) example is fine for me; Mike's [hot] and [sneeze] (adjective and verb) example is not (but it must have been fun to hear a kid say it). If they're both just examples of zeugma, why is that? WTF?

Now consider the following example (from Life of Pi, pg. 37):

I nodded so hard I'm surprised my neck didn't snap and my head fall to the floor.

When I first read this a few months ago, I had an even bigger WTF reaction than for any of the others. But I immediately reasoned through it and now find it almost perfectly grammatical. All that it took was the recognition that the negation expressed by "didn't" in the first conjunct takes scope over both conjuncts ...

NOT [ [my neck snap] and [my head fall to the floor] ]

... and that this means something subtley different from having two negations, each taking scope over one of the conjuncts ...

[ NOT [my neck snap] and [ NOT [my head fall to the floor] ]

as in:

I nodded so hard I'm surprised my neck didn't snap and my head didn't fall to the floor.

Which is ambiguous (as my colleague Andy Kehler pointed out to me) between a reading in which the neck-snapping causes the head-falling and one in which there is no causation (as pragmatically odd as that might be); in other words, causation between the first and second conjuncts is not necessary in this second sentence while it is in the original.

(Andy also reminds me of Arnold Zwicky's post from last August about grammatical and ungrammatical coordinations, sparked in part by a suggestion by Neal Whitman. Some of us here at UCSD are planning to read and discuss Neal's Language paper sometime next quarter; if anything particularly interesting comes out of that -- or if we have any more WTF reactions worth commenting on -- you'll hear about it here on Language Log.)

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at March 11, 2005 06:23 PM