April 22, 2006

When is a phrase not a phrase?

... when it's just two words that happen to be next to each other. There were apparently almost 400 letters to Vanity Fair about their controversial Hollywood issue cover (and portfolio) two months ago. Explaining the practical reasons why they couldn't address more of those letters in this month's issue, the editors write:

Is there a sweeter phrase in the English language than "space prohibits"? Not today.

Not any day, eds. -- "space prohibits" is at best a noun phrase subject plus a verb that usually takes both a noun phrase object plus a prepositional phrase headed by from. Here the editors are using the verb intransitively for effect; we can all basically infer what should follow, something like: "... us from addressing more of your letters."

Still, this highlights a small problem often encountered with constituency tests, a standard way (at least in introductory linguistics courses) of determining the phrasehood of a string of words (in a given sentential context). One of these is the Stand-Alone test, whereby "[t]he ability of a string of words to stand alone as a reply to a question is an indication of their being a constituent". Applying this test to "space prohibits", we get something like the following:

Why didn't you print my letter, V.F.? - Space prohibits.

Which is fine, for the same reason as before: the verb is being used intranstively for effect.

The good news is the "space prohibits" passes none of the other standard constituency tests (though see below). Even though Wikipedia says that "if a sequence of words we want to analyze passes one of the tests, this is sufficient to prove the constituency of this unit", I'm sure all syntacticians would agree this is too permissive; in my view, constituency tests are arrayed on a scale of reliability, and the Stand-Alone test is somewhere near the bottom -- good enough to confirm what you already suspect, but not good enough on its own.

Another weakly-reliable test is the Coordination test; it's more reliable as a test for the kind of constituent or phrase you have, but even then it's got some problems. Note that "space prohibits" can be made to pass this test:

[Space prohibits], and [our editors forbid], us from addressing more of your letters.

But, as indicated by the commas, there need to be intonational breaks around "and our editors forbid" for this to work, unlike a more typical use of the Coordination test:

Space prohibits us from addressing [more of your letters] and [any of your hate mail].

I have to admit that I'm usually disappointed by the discussion of (the reliability of the various) constituency tests in introductory textbooks ... anyone know of a text that goes into this sort of thing?

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at April 22, 2006 11:59 AM