July 18, 2007

A principle that no one can convince me that doesn't exist

According to yesterday's NYT Op-Ed by David Brooks ("Heroes and History", 7/17/2007):

Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: "It's more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn't exist."

Andrew Sullivan thinks it shows that "[President] Bush isn't merely not a conservative, but a tragi-comic version of what conservatism has long opposed". But what Dick Oehrle noticed -- in an email sent to me among others -- was that W (if he wasn't misquoted) has violated the Fixed Subject Constraint.

The "Fixed Subject Constraint" is not a new euphemism for a torture technique, but rather a linguistic phenomenon that was first noticed and named by Joan Bresnan in 1972, based on examples like these:

(a) I believe that Bush appointed Lute.
(b) I believe Bush appointed Lute.
(c) Who do you think that Bush appointed?
(d) Who do you think Bush appointed?
(e) ??Who do you think that appointed Lute?
(f) Who do you think appointed Lute?

(If you're confused, we're talking about Douglas Lute, the "war czar", appointed on May 15. Remember him?)

The issue at hand is whether it works, grammatically speaking, to say things like

That is a principle that no one can convince me that __ doesn't exist.

where the underbars mark the canonical location of that principle in the most deeply embedded clause. For most speakers of English, sentences like these are pretty bad; but many Americans don't mind them at all. Nicholas Sobin has reported that native English speakers in central Arkansas find such sentences no worse than the ones without the complementizer that ("On Comp-trace constructions in English", LSA 1983), and similarly for people from (at least some parts of) Iowa and Illinois ("The variable status of Comp-trace phenomena", NLLT, 5 33-60, 1987).

The true geographical distribution is not clear, but David Pesetsky has been know to quip that the FSC does not apply in the Central Time Zone. This would certainly include Texas, so president Bush is off the grammatical hook on the grounds of geography, even if he was quoted accurately (which is always unlikely, in the case of a quotation provided by a journalist).

Short of completely re-framing the sentence, those of us who are not from the central time zone have got a couple of other choices. You could omit the (always optional) complementizer that:

That is a principle that no one can convince me doesn't exist.

This results in a sentence that most people find awkward but grammatical. Or you could add a so-called "resumptive pronoun":

That is a principle that no one can convince me that it doesn't exist.

Standard English generally frowns on resumptive pronouns, though they're fairly common in speech and even in some forms of writing. A couple of weeks ago, Barbara Partee discussed a case where this issue came up ("A cat whose owners thought was lost", 7/6/2007).

(And if Dan Everett is right about the Pirahã, they don't have to wory about the problem at all, because they don't have any embedded clauses. So they'd have to use parataxis, something like:

Let's talk about that principle. It exists. No one can convince me otherwise.

Of course, if he's right about their cultural preference for avoiding discussion of things that are not part of immediate experience, then perhaps the existence or non-existence of principles is not a suitable subject for polite Pirahã conversation, in any syntactic form.)

Since 1972, Bresnan's facts have given rise to a very wide range of different explanations, some rather narrow and specific (the "that-trace filter"), others expansive and fundamental (the "empty category Principle"). The phenomenon has been seen by some as a deep and necessary truth about universal grammar, and by others as a superficial and contingent pattern that is not even true for all dialects of English. If you understood all the stories that linguists have told about the facts listed above, you'd know a large fraction of the history of syntactic theory in the last third of a century.

A note on sourcing is in order here. Here's what David Brooks says about where the Bush quotation comes from:

I spent the first four days of last week interviewing senators about Iraq. The mood ranged from despondency to despair. Then on Friday I went to the Roosevelt Room in the White House to hear President Bush answer questions on the same subject. It was like entering a different universe.

Far from being beleaguered, Bush was assertive and good-humored. While some in his administration may be looking for exit strategies, he is unshakably committed to stabilizing Iraq. If Gen. David Petraeus comes back and says he needs more troops and more time, Bush will scrounge up the troops. If GeneralPetraeus says he can get by with fewer, Bush will support that, too.

"Friday" would have been July 13, 2007. There's nothing of the sort on whitehouse.gov for that date, so I assume that the interaction was not recorded or transcribed, at least for the public. Based on extensive experience checking reporters' allegedly verbatim quotations against recordings (in cases where recordings exist), I need to point out that such quotes are almost always spectacularly inaccurate. It's common for more than half of the words to be wrong. (See here and here for some samples.)

And here's a private message to my fellow linguists: wikipedia searches for "fixed subject constraint", "that-trace filter", "comp-trace", "complementizer-trace" and even "resumptive pronoun" come up more or less empty! Resumptive pronouns are mentioned in passing in the article on Irish syntax, but that's it.

[Update -- David Pesetsky writes:

Actually, the effect was first noticed within generative grammar, as far as I know, by David Perlmutter in his dissertation (published shortly thereafter as a book). I don't remember if he gave the constraint a name.

I also seem to remember that something was noted by Jespersen about the effect in MEG. Also that there was a book by John Haiman from a functional perspective that may well have preceded Bresnan's article.

Not sure about Jespersen or the Haiman/Bresnan chronology, but I'm quite certain about Perlmutter.

That would be David M Perlmutter, "Deep and surface structure constraints in syntax", MIT PhD thesis, 1968. There's a pdf behind that link, so I'll find out what he said a bit later, when I have time, if someone doesn't beat me to it.

And the Jespersen reference would probably be to volume 4 of his "A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles", originally published in 1931, which is also available as a .pdf file.

So if you understood the whole history of this topic back to Jespersen, you'd cover 2/3 of a century of syntactic theory! ]

[David also reminded me that I once sent him a quotation from Junior Wells, introducing a song, along the lines of "This is a song that I think that will live in your hearts forever." ]

[Here's the passage from Perlmutter (1968), on pp 214-215:

As far as I can tell, Dave didn't assign a name to the phenomenon, though he does propose to account for it in terms of a surface structure constraint ("Any sentence other than an Imperative in which there is an S wthat does not contain a subject in surface structure is ungrammatical") that is evocative of the (later?) name "fixed subject constraint".

I don't have the exact Junior Wells citation yet.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 18, 2007 07:37 AM