WTF coordinate questions
Over on the newsgroup sci.lang, Ron Hardin has posted (3 June 2005)
another one of his finds, the radio ad:
(1) Are you like most Americans, and don't always eat as you
Hardin thought of this as just an error, but I find it surprisingly
good, despite the failure of parallelism between the two
conjuncts. Even more interesting, the obvious way of "fixing" the
failure of parallelism makes things worse, rather than better.
Example (1) looks like an instance of a special construction, the
details of which I don't yet understand.
Hardin is exquisitely sensitive to failures of parallelism and almost
always attributes the examples he collects to failures of attention,
inappropriate revising for conciseness, or, more generally, "deafness"
to the conditions on coordination. This literalism can be
annoying, but there's no denying it leads him to notice a variety of
interesting examples, especially of WTF
Some invented examples like (1):
(2a) Do you like Spam, but can't stand Spam casseroles?
(2b) Have you written a thesis, but have no idea what to do next?
(2c) Was Kim a typical American, and couldn't speak a word of
Hardin's first reaction was that the problem was just the coordination
of an interrogative with a declarative. But coordination of
unlike sentence types is not in itself fatal; as is well known, English
has a variety of constructions of this sort:
(3a) Eat that sushi, and you're a dead man!
(3b) Eat that sushi, or you're a dead man!
(3c) Eat that sushi, or are you too much of a wimp to do it?
(3d) You have to eat that sushi, or are you too much of a wimp to
In the right circumstances, you can even coordinate an NP with a
declarative clause, in the "one more beer" construction made famous by
Peter Culicover (Linguistic Inquiry
(4) One click of the mouse, and I'm on my way to untold,
Trump-level riches, only without the bankruptcies. ("Doonesbury"
cartoon by Garry Trudeau, 9 June 2005)
As Greg Lee pointed out in sci.lang, the problem is that the missing
subject in the second clause (which is not inverted) is not in the same
position as the explicit subject in the first clause (which is
inverted). If they weren't questions, there would be no puzzle
about these examples; the corresponding declaratives have unproblematic
conjoined VPs, marked by square brackets below:
(1') You [are like most Americans], and [don't always eat as you
(2a') You [like Spam], but [can't stand Spam casseroles].
(2b') You [have written a thesis], but [have no idea what to do
(2c') Kim [was a typical American], and [couldn't speak a word of
Now, examples (1')-(2c') have semantically equivalent versions in which
full clauses are conjoined, as in:
(5) [You are like most Americans], and [you don't always eat as
But supplying an explicit subject for the second VP in (1)-(2c)
produces odd results, as in:
(6a) ??Are you like most Americans, and you don't always eat as
(6b) ??Do you like Spam, but you can't stand Spam casseroles?
What seems to be going on with (1)-(2c) is that they are simply the
yes-no question versions of (1')-(2c'). Semantically, this is
just right. And pragmatically: coordinating the VPs conveys that
the VPs taken together are to be understood as characterizing a single
state. But there's a syntactic problem: (1)-(2c) have the
inversion associated with yes-no questions only in the first
clause. It's as if the syntax follows the semantics/pragmatics in
treating [VP Conj VP] as a unitary constituent, with the first V as its
head. Now to work out the details.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 10, 2005 02:00 PM