July 04, 2007

The right to do process

This Fourth of July, I've been thinking about those "unalienable Rights" that the signers of the Declaration of Independence felt were so self-evident. When it finally came time to spell them out in a Bill of Rights, the list included:

the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (First Amendment);

the right of the people to keep and bear Arms (Second Amendment); and

the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures (Fourth Amendment).

Syntactically at least, those rights seem pretty straightforward (ignoring for the moment the troublesome commas of the Second Amendment), since "(the) right (of the people)" is simply taking an infinitival verb phrase as its complement. In the First Amendment, two of these infinitival VPs are coordinated ("to assemble" and "to petition the Government"). The Sixth Amendment features a coordination too, but it gets a little stickier:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Here the first complement of "(the) right" is a prepositional phrase: "to a speedy and public trial," which then gets coordinated with a few infinitival VPs. In both the PP and the VP complements, the first word is to, but it's used for two different syntactic purposes: as a preposition and as an infinitive marker. In other words, you can have "the right to something" or "the right to do something." Right isn't the only noun that has this patterning; one can have "an inclination to violence" or "an inclination to commit violence," for example. But the PP/VP alternation for right shows up in so many set phrases in American political discourse that it's particularly prominent. And sometimes the ambiguity of the role of to in these set phrases can lead to confusion. Consider, for instance, the constitutional eggcorn that reinterprets the "due process" of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments by substituting the homophonous do for due, resulting in "the right to do process."

Another potential source of confusion is when PP and VP complements for "(the) right" are coordinated in a non-parallel construction, as we find in the Sixth Amendment. If the word to appears at the beginning of both types of complement, there's generally no problem in figuring out that to is filling different grammatical roles. Here's an example often heard in the police dramas of American film and television, when a cop has to provide a Miranda Warning upon making an arrest:

You have the right to an attorney and to have an attorney present during questioning.

Now, what if the cop decided to save some breath and omit the second to?

?? You have the right to an attorney and have an attorney present during questioning.

That's a bit rougher to parse, because it requires realizing that to is pulling double-duty: first as a preposition, then as an infinitive marker. Thus it's an example of syllepsis, aka WTF coordination. And if the above coordination rubs you the wrong way, then you better stay out of New York City taxicabs. Every cab driver is required to post "The Taxicab Rider Bill of Rights," which is not quite as eloquently phrased as the original Bill of Rights it's modeled on. Here's what it says (I've supplied the numbering):

As a taxi rider, you have the right to:

[i]   Direct the destination and route used;
[ii]   Travel to any destination in the five boroughs of the City of New York;
[iii]   A courteous, English-speaking driver who knows the streets in Manhattan and the way to major destinations in other boroughs;
[iv]   A driver who knows and obeys all traffic laws;
[v]   Air-conditioning on demand;
[vi]   A radio-free (silent) trip;
[vii]   Smoke and incense-free air;
[viii]   A clean passenger seat area;
[ix]   A clean trunk;
[x]   A driver who uses the horn only when necessary to warn of danger; and
[xi]   Refuse to tip, if the above are not complied with.

So to recap, you have the right to two bare-stem VPs [i-ii], eight NPs [iii-x], and one more bare-stem VP [xi]. If you actually read through to the end, you need to make two mental switches in parsing the word to, from reading it as an infinitive marker, to reading it a preposition, to re-reading it as an infinitive marker. I had my WTF moment sitting in a Manhattan cab a few weeks ago, wondering if I'd ever make it across town through rush-hour traffic. I must have seen this "Bill of Rights" dozens of times, since it has apparently been an obligatory item in New York cabs since 1995, but this was the first time I'd bothered to read it. (I guess that's my Syntaxicab Confession.)

I haven't managed to find anyone online griping about this, which is surprising since New Yorkers are notoriously quick to gripe about anything. I did find a long funny riff on the list of rider's rights in a post on Tomato Nation, where Sarah Bunting speaks of the times spent in New York cabs where "you glare sullenly at the Taxicab Rider's Bill Of Rights posted in the back seat and wish you'd thought to bring a magic marker." Bunting's imagined magic marker isn't there to amend the grammar, which she seems to have no problem with; rather, it's poised to make those "rights" correspond to the sad reality of the cab-riding experience. If I wanted to avoid any further WTF moments, my marked-up version would read:

As a taxi rider, you have the right:

[i*]   To direct the destination and route used;
[ii*]   To travel to any destination in the five boroughs of the City of New York;
[iii*]   To a courteous, English-speaking driver who knows the streets in Manhattan and the way to major destinations in other boroughs;
[iv*]   To a driver who knows and obeys all traffic laws;

But I don't think I'll be bringing a magic marker with me on any cab rides, since I have a hard time getting truly dyspeptic about matters sylleptic.

(Thanks to Arnold Zwicky and Neal Whitman for confirming my native-speaker intuitions.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at July 4, 2007 11:29 AM