February 14, 2007

No FLoP from Foggo

Over at Talking Points Memo, they've posted a copy of the Wilkes and Foggo indictment. If you've lost track of current Republican scandals, this is a subplot in the Duke Cunningham saga -- Brent Wilkes, a businessman, is accused of bribing Kyle Dustin "Dusty" Foggo, once executive director of the CIA, to steer contracts to ADCS Inc. One quoted email fragment, cited in Paul Kiel's summary of the indictment, caught my eye. Here's how it looks in the indictment itself:

The linguistic hook? Let's pass over the misspelling "breath" for "breathe". And never mind the infinitive that's split so wide as to give even Arnold Zwicky pause: "...to as long as I breathe be...". That's not what caught my eye. What I noticed was the apparently ungrammatical coordinate structure. Further analysis, however, led me to the conclusion that Foggo is innocent.

Innocent of ungrammaticality, that is. Foggo's hyphen placement creates the appearance of what Neal Whitman has called a "Friends in Low Places" (FLoP) coordination. But in this case, appearance is not reality.

Here's the analysis.

Let's start with a simple example adapted from one of Neal's posts on the subject -- a normal disjunction of adjectives that share a complement:

Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions.

You could expand this to the more redundant form:

Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling to perform the necessary actions or unable to perform the necessary actions.

But now consider the way Neal heard a flight attendent say it:

Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.

The same expansion produces a nonsensical result:

... if you are unwilling to perform the necessary actions without injury or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.

The "without injury" part is meant only to apply to the second disjunct, not to both of them.

Neal named this "FLoP coordination" because he first noticed it in the lyrics to Garth Brooks' song "Friends in Low Places":

I've got friends in low places,
where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases
my blues away.

This example also involves a phenomenon popularly known as "right node raising", where a constituent at the right edge of a phrase is shared by two left-edge pieces that aren't themselves constituents. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this "Delayed right constituent coordination" (15.4.4, p. 1343), which is a better description but a worse name, and explains:

In this construction the constituent which in basic coordination would appear as the rightmost element of the first coordinate is held back until after the final coordinate:

i.    She knew of my other work but never mentioned it.
[basic coordination]
ii. She knew of but never mentioned my other work.
            [delayed right constituent]

In general, the effect is to heighten the contrast between the coordinates by removing from them material that would be the same in each. But the construction is appreciably more difficult to process than basic coordination, both for the addressee, who has to hold the first coordinates in mind until the sense is completed at the end, and for the speaker, who has to plan ahead to ensure that each coordinate ends in a way that syntactically allows completion by the delayed element [...] Characteristically, there is a prosodic break after the final coordinate, signally that the element that follows relates to the whole coordination, not just to the final coordinate.

In the FLoP cases, part of the delayed element relates to the whole coordination, but another part of it only belongs with the final coordinate. This probably happens because the cognitive load of planning for the delayed right constituent confuses the writer (or speaker) and results in a structually incoherent sentence. The reader or listener is left to sort it all out on the basis of what makes sense in the context.

This happens a lot, and not just in country songs, flight attendant patter, and bureaucratic email -- see my post "Cubist syntax" (6/9/2005) for some examples from the hallowed pages of the New York Times.

[Lance Nathan has called Neal's analysis of the Garth Brooks lyric into question -- but like "Holy Roman Empire", the FLoP name is going to stick (at least around these parts) whether or not the eponymous case is valid.]

Anyhow, Dusty Foggo's email to his buddy Brent Wilkes seems to contain an example of delayed right constituent coordination with a FLoP element. Correcting the spelling, we have:

I am now,
have been in the past,
and will continue to as long as I breathe - be your partner . . .
so what do you want me to do?

If we take that dash to indicate the prosodic break between the conjunction and the delayed right constituent, this expands to

I am now (be your partner),
have been in the past (be your partner),
and will continue to as long as I breathe - be your partner ...

But really, this is a fake FLoP -- an orthographic mirage, caused by misplaced punctuation. Given the combined stress of criminal conspiracy and delayed right constituent coordination, it's easy to understand how this could happen. Move the dash one word to the right, past the "be", and you've got the culpably awkward but grammatical

I am now (your partner),
have been in the past (your partner),
and will continue to as long as I breathe be - your partner ...

All the same , if the quoted email is genuine, it looks bad for Dusty. The indictment accuses him of conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering, not of ungrammatical English. Acting as counsel for the defense, I've argued that his linguistic crimes should be reduced to bad writing and worse punctuation. But whatever the grammatical analysis, his meaning was all too clear.

[Update -- Marc Sarrel points out that Dusty may have been making a classical allusion, to this passage in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:

SPOCK: I have been - and always will be - your friend...Live. Long. And. Prosper.
[ Spock falls. Bones and Scotty react. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 14, 2007 06:21 AM