More fun with VPE
From an Andy Gill article
D.A. Pennebaker's rockumentary Don't
(on Bob Dylan), in The
of 4/27/07 (the Joan in question is Joan Baez):
[quote from Pennebaker:] "I guess I
tried to make that film as true to my vision of him as I could make it.
But as a storyteller, I wanted there to be stories in it."
Pennebaker was aided in this regard by Bob Neuwirth, a singer and
painter who served as Dylan's tour manager. Neuwirth had proved himself
Dylan's equal in droll acerbity - he's the one who jokes, "Joan's
wearing one of those see-through blouses you don't even want to!" - and
he clearly saw part of his job as providing entertaining moments for
Yes, one of those see-through
blouses you don't even want to
, with a Verb Phrase Ellipsis
(VPE) on the edge. It takes some work to interpret -- you're
likely to think of it as some kind of play on words -- but you can do
it, and figuring it out contributes to the humor (a good thing, since
the content of the quip is an unpleasant put-down). The other
ingredient in this example is the "anaphoric island" phenomenon, which
we seem not to have discussed before on Language Log.
(Hat Tip to Empty Pockets.)
I've talked about playful uses of VPE twice in the last year: John
One could write a whole paper on it
(and, as it happens, one is ___!).
All completely unnecessary, if you ask
me (though, of course, nobody did ___ or is ___).
The first of these postings has an introduction to VPE, which I won't
repeat here; what's important here is that in this construction a VP is
omitted when it can be supplied from the immediate linguistic
context. (There's a huge literature on the details of VPE.)
In the Neuwirth example, there's a relative clause in which the
complement of infinitival to
you don't even want to ___
What is this complement? Something like the VP
see through ___
which itself has a gap in it -- the gap of the relativized NP.
Now, VPE is possible when the ellipted material has a gap of
relativization in it, as in this example (from a posting to the OutIL
mailing list on 5/17/04):
Doesn't DOMA say the Feds don't have to
pay attention to any state marriage laws they don't want to ___?
The omitted complement VP here is
pay attention to ___
with a gap in it, just as in the Neuwirth sentence.
A bit of a digression now: what fills the gap in pay attention to ___
? If you
take a relative-clause gap to be filled by its head, then this relative
clause is to be interpreted as (that
they don't want to pay attention to
any state marriage laws
. But that's not right. The
object of pay attention to
should be understood as something like any state marriage laws they don't want to
pay attention to
___. Whoops. There's a gap in THAT
and we're in an infinite regress.
What we have here is a instance of "antecedent-contained deletion",
usually illustrated by somewhat simpler examples like John read every book that Mary did ___
The phenomenon has been studied since 1970; there's even a Wikipedia
. Finding a satisfactory analysis involves
abandoning simple antecedent-substitution analyses for the gaps in VPE
and relativization, and/or re-considering the analysis of
quantification in NPs (as in any
state marriage laws
These are gripping issues for syntacticians and semanticists.
What's important for us here, though, is the question of whether
gap-containing VPE is somewhat harder to process than gapless VPE, like
the one in
I would like the Feds to pay attention
to all state marriage laws, but they don't want to ___.
where the omitted complement VP is the gapless pay attention to all state marriage laws
My impression is that the relative-clause gap contributes some
processing difficulty, but I don't know if there's research bearing on
But in any case, the DOMA sentence doesn't present the kind of
processing puzzle that the Neuwirth sentence does. What's the
difference? The nature of the ANTECEDENT
The DOMA sentence has a VP antecedent, pay attention to ___
, in the
linguistic context, just as VPE requires. But the Neuwirth
sentence has instead the adjectival see-through
modifying the noun blouse
derived morphologically from the verb see
(plus an accompanying preposition, through
but it is not a VP, or even a V. There is no VP see through ___
in the linguistic
context to satisfy the requirements of VPE. To understand the
sentence, you have to get the interpretation 'see through' by "going
inside" the lexical item see-through
Another topic from roughly forty years ago, when it was first suggested
that lexical items are "islands" for anaphora, that parts of lexical
items or referents merely evoked by lexical items cannot serve as
antecedents for anaphoric elements (of several different kinds).
Here are typical violations of the Anaphoric Island Constraint (AIC):
I'm a pianist, but I don't own one. '... don't own a piano'
Flautists can easily take them
on planes. '... can easily take (their) flutes on planes'
I speak Norwegian, but I've never been there.
'... never been to Norway'
There's a huge literature on the AIC. Early on, it was observed
that more morphologically transparent lexical items are less
problematic than more opaque ones. Compare the examples above
I'm a piano-player, but I don't own one. '... don't own a piano'
Flute-players can easily take them
on planes. '... can easily take (their) flutes on planes'
I speak Hawaiian, but I've never been there.
'... never been to Hawaii'
And many examples improve considerably in context. That is,
various factors contribute to easing the task of finding antecedents
within islands. Eventually, some linguists began to argue that
the AIC was not a syntactic phenomenon at all, but a pragmatic one,
having to do ease of antecedent retrieval (as related to contextual
cues and morphological transparency, in particular); for a summary, see
Gregory Ward's 1997 "The battle over anaphoric 'islands': syntax vs.
pragmatics" (in Directions in
, ed. by Akio Kamio). Some examples
present no problem, others are extremely hard to interpret, even in
context, and many lie in between.
It seems to me that the anaphoric-island violation in the Neuwirth
sentence is in this middle territory. It takes some work to
figure out the speaker's intention, but the puzzle isn't
insoluble. The gap within the omitted VP might contribute to the
listener's work, though most of the work is, I think, a consequence of
the fact that the antecedent for VPE is not a VP in the linguistic
context, but is instead evoked by the lexical item see-through
So you can play with VPE for humorous effect. You can also
stretch VPE without playful intent, as some of the awkward
examples in my previous postings on VPE illustrate. My current
favorite of the latter type is from the final episode of the TV series Charmed
, in the following
(presumably scripted) exchange:
A: I just want Christy back.
B: You might be able to.
The omitted VP in B's response would seem to be get Christy back
, which is not
actually in A's statement, but is conveyed by it, if it's understood as
meaning 'I just want to get Christy back'. If I hadn't been a VPE
junky and had just been listening like a normal person, I might not
even have noticed the off-flavor of B's response.
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 20, 2007 03:58 PM