Today's language knot: the stripped cleft sluice
In Tuesday's Guardian, I came across the following sentence:
1) This time it is no longer what
brands say that is changing, or how they say it, but where. [source]
Where? Where what? The intended meaning's clear enough, though, like an
(e.g. more people have analyzed it than I have
it may get less clear when you stare at it. Unlike an Escher sentence,
if you stare at this one long enough, you can make sense of it again.
It's roughly like this:
2) This time it is no longer what
[blah blah] or how [blah blah] but where brands say whatever they say
that is changing.
What we have here is for language geeks only, a double language knot: a
sluice followed by an unusual strip. What? You didn't cover sluicing OR
stripping in sentence diagramming class? Jeez.
As you see if you stare into the cyberheavens, Geoff Pullum has kindly
suspended me in a glass cube hanging by a 20 foot chain from one of the
cannons protruding from the turret of his dreaming spire high above the
main offices of Language Log Plaza, and with only 10 minutes supply of
oxygen. I will now attempt, before your very (I love that `very')
eyes... to undo the language knot. Geoff tells me this is a standard
qualifying exam to get a syntax license at LL plaza. So wish me luck! I
think I can do it, if you'll just bear with me for these precious few
minutes. (Though all alone up here I have a queasy feeling of deja
Here we go.
Both sluicing and stripping are types of ellipsis, constructions where
stuff seems to have been left out, although we can reconstruct what
that stuff would be by looking at the rest of the sentence or discourse.
Let's start with stripping. It's a general process for leaving
stuff out, with only a small core remaining. Here's an example I just
found (first rule of lingua-blogging... any point made with an example can be made with a scatological example):
3) At the time the press
were stating that lion poo keeps not only deer away but rabbits too.
In this case, rabbits
what I'm calling the core, though you can count but
in the core as well if you
like. And the stuff that's missing, at least in the sense that it could
have been there without changing the meaning, is all that lion poo. We
can picture the process of reconstructing the missing lion poo as
follows (I like to decorate the core in a
lovely purple, and use green for bracketed material I've added):
4) but rabbits too
----> but (lion poo keeps) rabbits (away) too
Now what we have in our original example (1) is slightly
different: it involves a cleft
sentence, in fact an it-cleft
a sentence of the form it is X
. And the example also involves coordination
, where several pieces
are glommed together using connectives like and
. As far as I can tell, in a
sentence with coordination and a cleft, it's common to strip out the
last part of the cleft, the that
clause. Here are some examples I found:
5) It's not just morning-after
pills that are being denied, but also routine non-emergency birth control
(that is being denied).
6) It's not so much death that I
hate but the thought of
leaving people (that I
7) Of course, it is not just
marriage that some people want restricted to the purpose of having
children, but sex
(that some people want restricted
to the purpose of having children) too.
OK, we've been denied birth control, hated the thought of leaving people,
and stripped for sex. Time to move on to sluicing.
Sluicing involves reconstructing material after a wh-word. Jason Merchant
name: Mr. Ellipsis, read The
Syntax of Silence
to find out more) sent me the following delicious
example, to which I've added the sluiced material in blue.
7) [The Smart Toilet] is a
paperless device that not only accommodates calls of nature, but also
'knows' who's using it and how (they are using it).
[San Jose Mercury News, 6 Aug
Jason, by the way, is concerned about privacy issues arising from
smart toilets, but I'm more worried by the word paperless
... not a feature I
look forward to in the smallest room in the house. Anyhow, the point is
all the missing blue stuff reconstructed after how
. That's sluicing.
So back to my question: where what? We can now rebuild the original
example as involving, first, sluicing of the blue stuff, and, second,
stripping of the green stuff. And to keep it interesting, the
reconstructed sluiced material provides the core for the cleft strip.
1) This time it is no longer what
brands say that is changing, or how they say it, but where (they say it) (that is changing).
The funny thing about language knots is that any fool can tie them. The
trick is to untie them. So I'm feeling rather pleased with myself.
But... uh... how the hell do the newly licensed syntax bloggers get out
of the glass cube and back down to the ground? Geoff? I think I passed the
exam, Geoff! Can anyone hear me? Geoff, the air's getting rather uh,
thin... up... here....
Posted by David Beaver at January 31, 2007 02:26 AM