January 31, 2007

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 Escher sentence (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 vu.)

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. [source]

In this case, rabbits is what I'm calling the core, though you can count but and too 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 that Y. And the example also involves coordination, where several pieces are glommed together using connectives like and, or or but. 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). [source]

6) It's not so much death that I hate but the thought of leaving people (that I hate). [source]

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. [source]

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 (stage 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 1996]

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