June 21, 2005

A recipe for WTF coordination

recipe Kathryn Campbell-Kibler wrote me (on 8 June 2005) with an example from the most recent Cook's Illustrated, where a bit of recipe register has escaped into otherwise ordinary English prose, yielding a decidedly odd coordination, and causing me to reflect some on what it means to say that this example is "telegraphic".

Kcat, as she is known to her friends, reports:
In the "Quick tips" section, it says "Instead of letting any of the smoothie left behind in the blender melt and go to waste, Marya Skrypiczajiko of Nelson, British Columbia, freezes it in Popsicle molds (or 3-ounce waxed paper cups).  She lets the "pops" freeze partway before placing a Popsicle stick in the middle, and freezes them till firm and someone wants a quick snack. "

Two issues here.  One is the importation of a feature of the recipe register into otherwise ordinary English prose.  This sort of thing happens a lot: features of other dialects, other styles, special registers, other languages even, find their way onto novel terrain, where they are deployed for some effect.  Sometimes, for example, people talking or writing about cooking will inserts bits of recipe register into their discourses, in effect quoting the register and evoking its careful instructional tone.

In this case the feature is Recipe Subject+Copula Omission (RSCO for short), in which till firm is understood as till SUBJECT COPULA firm, for contextually appropriate values of SUBJECT and COPULA.

Note: I'm going to sidestep the question of whether RSCO is a construction of its own or a register-specific extension of ordinary SCO, illustrated in free adjuncts like those below:
While turning the handle, Kim noticed a crack in it.
Though finished with the talk, Terry remained on the stage.
While/Though persistent, Sandy was no match for the baby.
What's important is that till firm in freezes till firm is a recipe-register thing, a bit of "telegraphic" English not normally found outside abbreviated written instructions.

Now, the syntactic issue, which concerns
(1)  ??till firm and someone wants a quick snack
in which an AdjP firm is conjoined with a clause someone wants a quick snack.  The intended interpretation is that of
(2)  till they [the "pops"] are firm and someone wants a quick snack
That is, the pops are to stay in the freezer until both these conditions are satisfied.

(Please do not write me about till vs. until vs., ugh, 'til.  If till troubles you, just replace it by until in all of its occurrences in my text and read on.)

A coordination of parallel predicatives would certainly be possible:
till firm and wanted as a quick snack
(with shared understood subjects).  And so would the version in (2), with distinct, but explicit, subjects.  The problem is that the omitted subject doesn't match the explicit one.

The point is that the anomaly of (1) is just what we'd expect if RSCO was simply a construction of English, one that happened to be limited to occurrence in certain discourse/social contexts.  It would be like ordinary SCO examples in nonparallel coordinations:
??While turning the handle and Alex looked on, Kim noticed a crack in it.
??Though finished with the talk and Alex was ready to speak, Terry remained on stage.
??While/Though persistent and the rest of the family was supportive, Sandy was no match for the baby.

The anomaly of (1) is unexpected only if you take the idea of "telegraphic" language very literally -- if you assume that what is said or written is MERELY an abbreviation of a longer expression, in the way that $4 is a mere abbreviation for four dollars and has the same external syntax as it.  On that assumption, (1) is just an encoding of (2), so that the anomaly of (1) is a surprise.

In general, register-specific constructions are fully integrated into the language -- just as register-specific lexical items are -- and must fit into the syntax of their surroundings.  No doubt very few people have thought otherwise, but it's always nice to have an argument.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 21, 2005 06:03 PM