May 15, 2007

Could preposition doubling be headed our way?

Mark has raised a possibility of which I am afraid of: that preposition doubling (simultaneous fronting and stranding) will take off and become standard, and we will all have to use it. The foregoing sentence is still not grammatical for me, and I would correct it if I were copy-editing or reading student work. But look:

A thing of which I am afraid of is the maintenance effort to sort out the user input e.g. putting the created pages into the correct categories.

I looked for (and found) a "new" kind of mathematical symmetry, using Pythagoras principles, and the irrational 12th root of 2 (of which Pythagoreans were "afraid of") to approximate the set of ratios that can produce resonance.

Further, pagan religion itself of which Israel was afraid of was practically converted to the cult of the Greek gods.

And I found these simply by choosing a random preposition P and a random adjective A that takes P as the head of its complement and searching for P which . . . A P. Specifically, I used the Google pattern "of which * afraid of". When I picked another random such phrase, choosing P = to and A = accustomed, and searched on the Google pattern "to which * accustomed to", I immediately hit this:

A bit-part role is something to which Traore grew accustomed to during his time at Liverpool earlier in his career, with a seven-year stay on Merseyside ...

So watch out; the fronted-plus-stranded construction could be coming to your town. Don't blame us linguists; we don't direct linguistic change, we merely observe it, describe it, and if necessary try to get used to it.

Oh, and one other thing: we try to learn from it. For true syntax aficionados, let me just make one technical point: movement theories do not predict this. If you move the PP you get to which Traore grew accustomed; if you move just the NP complement you get which Traore grew accustomed to; and under the copy theory of movement with visible copies you would get *to which Traore grew accustomed to which; but there is no natural way to get to which Traore grew accustomed to. As you may know if you are a practitioner of theoretical syntax, I am skeptical about movement theories, and have been since 1979. This construction provides one more plank for my skeptical platform, doesn't it? I will refrain from saying "Nyaaah nyaaah."

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 15, 2007 04:30 PM