August 14, 2006

Billions for X-ray machines and we're not any safer

Rick Lyman ("My Liquid-Free Flight Abroad", NYT Week in Review 8/13/06, p. 4) quotes for us an example of what looks like a WTF coordination:

Even the cabdriver got into the game, barking back at the radio.  "What about the X-ray machines that don't work?  What about the billions we spent and we're not any safer?"

Some of our earlier discussions of WTF coordination specifically involved questions, but the interrogative character of this example is irrelevant.  As a whole, the sentence is an instance of a verbless question type What about NP?, as in the movie title "What About Bob?" and in these quotations, from the Google help site and the sci.lang faq site, respectively:

What about privacy? ...
What about spam?

What about those Eskimo words for snow? (and other myths about language)
What about artificial languages, such as Esperanto?

All the grammatical action in the cabdriver's outraged question is in the NP, which has a head "the billions" followed by the relative clause (lacking a relativizer):

we spent and we're not any safer

This is a coordination, of a clause with an object gap in it -- "we spent ___" -- and a clause with no gap in it -- "we're not any safer".  In the terminology of classic transformational grammar, the object "the billions" has been extracted from one conjunct (the first in this case), just the sort of thing that Ross's Coordinate Structure Constraint was supposed to forbid.

The cabdriver's outcry could be recast as an exclamatory construction (also involving extraction), but still with a relative clause in which the CSC is violated:

The/Those/What/So many   billions we spent ___ and we're not any safer!

Or as a WH question (again, involving extraction) in which the CSC is violated:

How many billions did we spend ___ and we're not any safer?

None of these seem nearly as bad to me as some of classic CSC violations (e.g., "What book did John buy and read the magazine?"), which I talked about here two years ago in connection with a relative clause somewhat similar to the cabdriver's:

Hyatt Rickeys, which will be demolished and the property turned into a residential development

This one has a subject (rather than object) gap in the first conjunct, plus some additional grammatical action in the elliptical second conjunct.  It's not so bad.  Back in 2004 I referred to Andy Kehler's book Coherence, Reference, and the Theory of Grammar (2002), which suggests viewing CSC violations in discourse-structural, rather than purely syntactic, terms.

This view is particularly attractive for a class of CSC violations with an object gap in the SECOND conjunct, like

some milk I ran down to the corner store and bought ___ for breakfast tomorrow

where the two conjuncts together describe a single coherent event (with its parts ordered in time); the parts are expressed via the syntax of coordination, but the event itself has a subsidiary subevent (the running down to the corner store) followed by a main subevent (the buying of the milk).

For the cabdriver sentence, we have two subsituations -- the event of spending billions and the state of not being safer than we were before -- which are closely tied, both temporally and logically.  The logical connection can be seen from the fact that "but" (which is more explicitly contrastive than "and") is possible in the coordination, as well as an explicitly contrastive "still" in the second conjunct:

What about the billions we spent but we're (still) not any safer?

and from the fact that the contrastive subordinator "though" (which would of course not give rise to a CSC violation) is also possible:

What about the billions we spent, though we're not any safer?

So I've made some kind of coherence account plausible here, but there's a lot of work still to be done, since varying bits of the cabdriver example -- the exclamatory character of the example, the negative second conjunct, for instance -- produces examples that don't strike me as quite as good as the original.

I'm thinking about the billions we spent and we're not any safer.
What about the billions we spent, and we're now a lot safer?

Maybe I'm being hypersensitive.  Unfortunately, real-life examples like the cabdriver sentence aren't easy to come by; even coordinations of VPs with a gap in the first conjunct are not all that easy to find (below are a couple supplied to me by Chris Potts, with VPs set off in red and with gap sites marked)

Then he took the family phone apart. Finally, he figured it out to his satisfaction. "This was a fantastic high, something I could get absorbed in ___ and forget that I had these other social problems."
(Tracy Kidder. 1981. The Soul of a New Machine. Back Bay Paperback edition, 2000, p. 93)

It's one of those rare books that you read ___ and think, I know that woman. She's me.
(Ad for the book Girls' Poker Night, The New Yorker, June 17 and 24, 2002 , p. 62)

and coordinations of CLAUSES with a gap in the first conjunct are even rarer.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 14, 2006 11:11 AM