December 04, 2005

Can I help who's next?

In Rockport, Massachusetts, I observed another grammatical construction that might well have been thought extinct for many decades, but like the ivory-billed woodpecker and the supplementary relative that-clause, it seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment. I was waiting in line in a small coffee shop and I heard a young woman behind the counter call for the next customer by saying "Can I help who's next?". This wasn't my first observation; I hear the phrase in Santa Cruz, California, too (and since first posting this I have heard that it is familiar elsewhere, from ice cream scoopers in Cleveland, Ohio, to bank tellers in Gainesville, Florida). So it's not local; it's spread across the entire breadth of the continent. What's interesting about it is that it's a fused relative construction with human denotation, headed by the relative pronoun lexeme who. And that is a possibility that has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years.

It's very important here to distinguish two separate structures for who's next. One of the two is an interrogative content clause, and that's commonplace. There is nothing remarkable about examples like this:

I wonder who's next.
Let's go and inquire who's next.
Who's next is completely unclear.
Who's next doesn't matter.

In all of these, the who's next is interrogative. There are various tests for this. A fairly good one is to see if you can add else. If you can its an interrogative. Since only one person can be the next and nobody else can, there is a semantic incompatibility with else here, but notice that in all of the above examples you could replace who's next by something like who else was involved, and the results are fully acceptable. That tells us that the construction is an interrogative complement clause in each case.

Now, interrogatives often have exactly the same form as corresponding fused relatives. Take a constituent like what Frankenstein created in his laboratory. It goes well as the complement of a verb like inquire or the subject of something like is completely unclear:

Let's go and inquire what Frankenstein created in his laboratory.
What Frankenstein created in his laboratory is completely unclear.

These are interrogative uses (and notice, adding else after what produces perfectly grammatical results). But the same string of words can also be a fused relative: a noun phrase constituent in which, in effect, the words the thing that (or the thing which, or that which) are fused into the single word what. When it's a fused relative noun phrase construction, such a word sequence can be the subject of a straightforward verb phrase denoting an action:

What Frankenstein created in his laboratory subsequently killed him.

Here what Frankenstein created in his laboratory can be paraphrased as "the thing that Frankenstein created in his laboratory", which is not at all like its interpretation in the earlier examples. And if you try the else test on this, and in my judgment it fails:

*What else Frankenstein created in his laboratory subsequently killed him.

Now consider whether you can use something like who taught Frankenstein his medical skills as a fused relative. In the following pair, the first uses it as an interrogative content clause and the second uses it as a fused relative. In my judgment, the second one is completely ungrammatical.

Who taught Frankenstein his medical skills is unclear.
*Who taught Frankenstein his medical skills did him no favors.

In general, fused relatives with who just aren't used in contemporary English. In Shakespeare's time it was commonplace (recall Iago's remark in Othello: Who steals my purse steals trash; 'twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands). It survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.

Except in this peculiar use in coffee shops and the like, because in Can I help who's next? we have a fused relative construction: it's the object of help.

Notice, I've been talking about phrases like who taught Frankenstein his medical skills and who's next. Things are completely different if we consider not the lexeme who but instead the compound lexeme whoever. That (like all the wh + -ever words) is freely used in fused relatives. If I was hearing Can I help whoever's next? I wouldn't have written this post at all. There'd be nothing interesting to say. And no, I don't think we're looking at a contraction of whoever. You can't just posit random omissions of two-syllable sequences, especially when they just happen to result in something that is almost grammatical and used to be fully grammatical. And particularly not in this kind of case, where the -ever part is meaningful.

[Lots of people have now written to me to confirm hearing or using the expression in coffee shops, bookstores, or whatever, up to about fifteen years ago, especially in the upper Midwest, which could be the cradle of the phrase. Interestingly, though, one of the first messages I got after posting this was from some supercilious snooty guy who wanted to tell me that the people who serve behind counters in coffee shops "probably never read Shakespeare and have a limited grasp of the English language", as if this was about dinging a young working woman for being ignorant. It's about nothing of the sort. It's about the grammatical possibility of human-referring fused relatives, and the complexity of the picture we face when a single language is in use by a billion people with dates of birth spread over about a century, and about the odd survivals and exceptions that can lurk in the syntactic patterns found in everyday use. One person who is now a linguist wrote me to say that even when she first heard this expression in an ice cream place 15 years ago she thought even then that it was odd. I'm explaining that she's right: it is odd. It seems to be an isolated survival of an extinct construction type. And you don't account for its existence across a continent by positing unconfirmable (and implausible) individual ignorance.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 4, 2005 08:48 PM