October 14, 2007

Ask Language Log: gapless relatives

According to Louise Story, "The New Advertising Outlet: Your Life", NYT 10/14/2007:

“We want to find a way to enhance the experience and services, rather than looking for a way to interrupt people from getting to where they want to go,” said Stefan Olander, global director for brand connections at Nike. “How can we provide a service that the consumer goes, ‘Wow, you really made this easier for me’?” [emphasis added]

Lou Hevly asks:

For me this "that" should be "so that", "for which" (a bit stilted) or perhaps "where". My question is whether you believe that the slip was inadvertent or whether this kind of construction has become common.

I'm afraid that I find myself in the position of the pediatrician who amused me, one December day long ago, by diagnosing an infant's rash as "winter eczema", and providing a small sample of an over-the-counter ointment.  In fact, I can't do as well, because at least the doctor translated the symptom into Greek, whereas all I can offer is a transparently all-English diagnosis: "gapless relative clause". And I don't have any ointment to offer.

Even worse, the pediatrician was able to assure me confidently that winter eczema has become very common, due to the dryness caused by central heating, while in contrast, I don't have any idea whether gapless relative clauses have gotten commoner (or less common) in English over the past few decades or centuries.

On the other hand, the doc got paid.

To clarify the terminology: a standard English relative clause includes a "gap" that is semantically connected to its head. Here are two examples from the same NYT article, with the gaps made explicit:

In the 1980s, Nike began the large television campaigns that __ propelled the brand to global fame.
That’s the world we’re all afraid of __.

But there's no reason in principle that a clause without a gap shouldn't be used in a semantically similar way (although English discourages this):

... the smell that Kim was making __ by frying onions ...
... the smell that Kim was frying onions ...

I can add a few other relevant nuggets of information:

Standard English allows a somewhat similar function in clauses introduced by such that -- thus from Columbia University's Guidelines for Review of Misconduct:

For these reasons it is essential that the Vice President with the assistance of the department chairperson or institute or center director and any ad hoc committee created to conduct an inquiry or an investigation foster an attitude such that the accuser is treated fairly and reasonably.

Gapless relatives are found in standard versions of some other languages, notably Korean and Japanese (see e.g. Jong-Yul Cha, "Relative Clause or Noun Complement Clause: Some Diagnoses").

The gapless relatives with that are conceptually similar to what is sometimes called "linking which" (see e.g. "Linking 'which' in Patrick O'Brian", 11/14/2003).

And some people find that Introduction to Syntax (available without a prescription) is as effective as cortisone ointment in reducing the irritation.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 14, 2007 08:02 AM