May 23, 2007

News from the further reaches of Ellipsilandia

Our Young Eric has mischievously tossed us a playful instance of Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE) in his latest posting:

All completely unnecessary, if you ask me (though, of course, nobody did ___ or is ___).

Both did and is are missing their complement VPs (indicated by the underscores above), which we can supply as base-form ask me (as the complement of supportive DO) and present participial asking me (in the progressive construction), respectively.  The antecedent VP is the present-tense ask me (bolded above).  Base-form omitted VP with a present-tense antecedent is generally unproblematic, but present-participial omitted VP with a present-tense antecedent is on the iffy side; the VPE here calls attention to itself:

All completely unnecessary, if you ask me (though, of course, ...
    [ok]  nobody did ___).
    [?]  nobody is ___).

Call the latter pairing the Bakovic Configuration:

Ellipsis: present participle
Antecedent: present tense

We've commented on a somewhat similar case on Language Log before, in John McWhorter's also playful:

[?] One could write a whole paper on it (and, as it happens, one is ___!).

Call this the McWhorter Configuration:

Ellipsis: present participle
Antecedent: base form

(McWhorter is also playing with two different uses of one, as I pointed out in that earlier posting.)

Here's a recent instance of the McWhorter Configuration, from a letter to The Advocate (4/20/07, p. 8) from Robert Barzan of Modesto, Calif., about the development of gay life there:

[?] If this can happen in Modesto, it can happen anywhere, and it is ___.

This one seems to have been written entirely seriously.  It does have an additional point of interest, the quantificational semantics of anywhere.  Mechanically filling in the omitted VP gives us:

... it can happen anywhere, and it is happening anywhere.

This won't fly at all.  The problem is that any-expressions come into (at least) two flavors, and neither fits in this context.  There's a kind of existential reading for anywhere (and other any-expressions), but it's limited to "negative polarity" contexts: under negation ("It's not happening anywhere"), in yes-no questions ("Is it happening anywhere?"), and in conditionals ("If it's happening anywhere, it's happening in Modesto"), in particular.  Then there's a kind of universal reading for anywhere (and other any-expressions), involving "free choice any" ("It can happen anywhere" 'Pick any place X; it can happen there -- that is, in X'), but it too is limited in its contexts; the facts are complicated, but for  anywhere in a VP, the preferred contexts have certain modals, as in "It can/could/would/might happen anywhere".  "It is happening anywhere" fits neither pattern.

To get something like the intended reading, we need to supply an explicit universal, something like:

... it can happen anywhere, and it is happening (almost) everywhere.

How to get this result, and in a general way, is a non-trivial task for semanticists.  Fortunately, I don't pretend to be a real semanticist, so I can pass on to an even more startling, and entertaining, piece of data, the title of Stephen Colbert's new book, which Lee Beck tells me (5/20/07) is, with the relevant parts marked as before:

I Am America (And So Can You ___)

This would appear to be just an omitted base-form VP (be America) with a present-tense antecedent (am America), a configuration that I described above as "generally unproblematic".  But Colbert's title, though (eventually) interpretable, is massively problematic.  To put off some complexities, I'll shift to a slightly different version, with additive adverbial too rather than so:

I Am America (And You Can ___ Too)

Compare this tortured ellipsis with the much better:

I Love America (And You Can ___ Too)

The problem is with omitted base-form VPs with head verb BE.  And it's general.  Colbert's original has BE + predicative NP, but the same problem arises with predicative AdjP, predicative PP, present participle VP in the progressive, and past participle VP in the passive:

AdjP:  I Am American (And You Can ___ Too)
PP: I Am At My Peak (And You Can ___ Too)
VP in progressive: I Am Wearing a Hat (And You Can ___ Too)
VP in passive: I Am Being Praised (And You Can ___ Too)

All of these are much improved if the be is preserved, that is, if only the complement of be is omitted in VPE:

NP: I Am America and You Can Be ___ Too
AjpP: I Am American and You Can Be ___ Too

(Remember from earlier discussions that, although the construction is called "VPE", the omitted material is not necessarily a VP.  Labels are not definitions.)

In any case, there's a constraint on VPE against omitting certain VPs headed by BE; call it the VPE BE Constraint.  The details aren't crucial to an analysis of Colbert's title, so I'll pass on to the original, with so instead of too.

The thing with additive adverbial so is that (a) it has to be initial in its (elliptical) clause (while too is final) and (b) it requires the "inverted" auxiliary + subject order (while too has the default subject + auxiliary order):

I Can Be America (And ...
     So Can You ___    *Too Can You ___
    *So You Can ___    *Too You Can ___
    *You Can ___ So      You Can ___ Too )

and, significantly, for many speakers (c) it requires ellipsis of the complement of the auxiliary (while too does not):

I Can Be America (And ...
     So Can You ___               You Can ___ Too)

I Can Be America (And ...
    *So Can You Be ___          You Can Be ___ Too)

I Can Be America (And ...
    *So Can You Be America   You Can Be America Too)

Call this last condition the SO Ellipsis Requirement.

Now, when we move away from these fully parallel examples to ones with a present-tense verb in the antecedent, we're confronted with a conflict between the two conditions: the VPE BE Constraint says not to omit, in this context, the be of you can be America, but the SO Ellipsis Requirement says you must omit it, in general.  Colbert omitted the be, violating the first condition; preserving the be (and violating the second condition) gets you:

[??] I Am America (And So Can You Be ___)

I find this marginally more acceptable than Colbert's choice, but less entertaining (because his presents a little puzzle for you to solve).

On the other hand, maybe Colbert was just treating BE as if it were a transitive verb -- "What do you do to America?  I be America!" -- in which case the elliptical clause (So Can You) is impeccable, but the preceding main clause (I Am America) is peculiar.  Colbert being Colbert, maybe we shouldn't try to decide between these possibilities.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 23, 2007 10:02 AM