July 06, 2007

A cat whose owners thought was lost

AP on Yahoo, "Cat survives three weeks crossing ocean", 7/5/2007. First sentence of the story:

A cat whose owners thought was lost spent nearly three weeks crossing the Pacific Ocean in a shipping container with no food or water — and appears to be just fine.

I had to read it three times. It looks almost like a possible parasitic gap, but it's not. I suppose it could be fixed by filling either gap with a pronoun:

A cat who its owners thought was lost Ö
A cat whose owners thought it was lost Ö

Why do you suppose they did the illicit parasitic gap? Might the two alternative well-formed possibilities have struck their ear superficially as illicit resumptive pronoun constructions? Is this an attested pattern of hypercorrection?

[Update -- Marilyn Martin did a Google search and sent the following results, all showing exactly the same pattern as the cat example:

(link) Picture: AFP Iraqis carry the coffin of a man whose relatives said was killed during a US military raid on their home in Baghdad. ...

(line) A jury award $15 million to the estate of a resident whose family claimed was given Darvocet (a mild painkiller) in place of morphine (a more powerful ...

(link) The 24 family members, from four states and representing four generations, were there to honor the man whose wife said was among "about three men" of the ...

(link) Early in the week, a man, whose wife said was bipolar, was shot in Miami after allegedly claiming to possess a bomb. Then on Thursday, a six-year old boy ...

(link) there was the boy whose parents thought was a potential genius, yes they could, with a lot of work, get him to Level 5, but for his sake didn't want to. ...

(link) A patent clerk whose parents thought was retarded, couldn't remember his own phone number yet manages to revolutionize science for all time. Mythical: ...

(link) i'm the girl whose sister thought was obnoxious once upon a time. i'm that girl who couldn't bear to miss classes in year 1 yet happily skipped a tute just ...

Similar searches turn up hundreds of other examples, suggesting that there is a real phenomenon here.

Laura Kalin wrote with puzzlement, trying to figure out why the sentence sounds so close to being correct and wondering why itís actually not correct.

I read the sentence featured in your post ("A cat whose owners thought was lost spent nearly three weeks crossing the Pacific Ocean Ö.") over and over again, because the sentence almost sounded correct. I have finally figured out what stumped me: why is it that replacing "whose owners" with an 'equivalent' pronoun makes the sentence grammatical? The phrase "A cat they thought was lost" sounds completely grammatical to me. Why the disparity? Is it something to do with the possessive determiner?

For Laura and any other similarly puzzled readers, I think the comments and examples below from Craig Russell show quite explicitly both how the cat sentence comes so close to being correct and why it's not.

I got several messages (thank you all) suggesting hypotheses to explain it. Now that we have Marilyn's examples, Iím convinced it needs explaining; and her examples also serve to eliminate some of the hypotheses that came in. The suggestion that seems most plausible so far comes from Craig Russell. He apologizes for his lack of formal linguistic training, but needn't have -- the result is that he writes in clear language that will be as accessible to non-linguists as to linguists, which is all to the good.

I've been giving some thought to your Language Log posting, and I have come up with sort of a theory to explain the construction. I will apologize, as I always do in my responses to Language Log postings, for my lack of formal linguistic training and familiarity with terminology; I am a graduate student in the Classics whose exposure to the study of language is mostly through Greek and Latin.

Anyway, my cat theory is based on the normal pattern for the formation of sentences with relative clauses: what could be a regular pronoun in a separate sentence can be replaced with a relative pronoun. E.g.

1. Here is a cat. He is orange.
Here is a cat who is orange. (he-->who)

2. Here is a cat. People love him.
Here is a cat who(m) people love. (him-->who(m))

3. Here is a cat. His owners are the Smiths.
Here is a cat whose owners are the Smiths. (his-->whose)

Familiar stuff. But English sentences can sometimes leave out the relative pronoun:

Here is a cat. People love him.-->Here is a cat people love.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. That construction could lead to the following sentence:

4. Here is a cat. His owners thought he was lost.
Here is a cat his owners thought was lost.

"His owners thought was lost" is a relative clause with the relative pronoun "who" omitted. But structurally, it looks kind of like my sentence #3--the one where 'his' goes to 'whose' when creating a relative clause.

So my theory is that the sentence in question arose by taking a sentence that already had a relative clause, and falsely changing "his" to "whose" by analogy with sentences like #3. Perhaps a case of overcorrection--are there prescriptive grammarians who condemn omitting relative pronouns in sentences like #4? If so, it is easy to imagine someone accidentally changing "his" to "whose" in an attempt to fix this egregious error.

This looks quite plausible. I don't know if the result is a hypercorrection (because I also don't know if anyone feels any need to avoid no-relative-pronoun relative clauses) or a blend, but in either case the similarity Craig notes between his #3 and #4 may well be the best clue to an explanation.

If there has been real linguistic work done on this, I don't know it. But at any rate, it's a real phenomenon, more interesting than I had originally suspected. I also have no idea whether it's related to how other (well-formed, at least according to current standards) parasitic gaps have arisen. But this is Language Log, not a journal, so we can just observe such things and then go on with our real work, isn't that nice? ]

Posted by Barbara Partee at July 6, 2007 03:55 AM