January 12, 2008

A Richardson relative clause

Then-Presidential candidate Bill Richardson, in the immediate aftermath of the New Hampshire primary voting, announced:

I want to apologize to all the New Hampshire voters who I interrupted their meals the last few days.

(Widely reported, for instance in the Las Cruces Sun-News, in Richardson's home state, on 8 January.  I heard it on NPR's Morning Edition the next morning.)

This sentence is (a) completely comprehensible (I don't think that any well-intentioned person who speaks English could mistake its intended meaning), (b) thoroughly ungrammatical in standard English, and (c) entirely unsurprising as a fix for problems in production.

If you're going to produce an English relative clause, here's the simplest way to do it is: [Note added 1/13: right here I'm in the middle of an Extris construction; I wrote that extra is and then realized what I'd done but decided to leave it in anyway, just for fun.] start with the head NP that you want to modify, and then compose the relative clause from

(1) a single-word relative marker -- a WH word or that -- that explicitly announces that a subordinate clause is to follow: the people who/that I met (there's also the option of an "unmarked" or "zero" relative, as in the people I met, where there's no explicit marker), and

(2) a clause with a gap in the position where the head NP is to be interpreted (who/that I met ___); this clause then either restricts the referent of the head or adds information about that referent.

Richardson led off with the relative marker who, and then went on to put together the rest of the relative clause, which was to be about his interrupting the meals of lots of New Hampshire voters.  Unfortunately, he chose to make the clause about him: he began the clause with the subject I.  He was then committed to an active-voice clause, and he was in grammatical hot water -- because when he got to referring to the interrupted meals, the natural position for the gap was as a determiner, and that's not an acceptable location for a gap:

*all the New Hampshire voters who I interrupted ____ meals the last few days

Now, he could have opted for a passive-voice clause, with the voters as the referent of the subject:

who had their meals interrupted by me ... 

This is a more complex option than the active-voice version, however.  And to realize that you might want a passive clause, you need to think ahead to possible problems with the active-voice version.

Or he could have opted for an of-possessive rather than a determiner possessive:

who I interrupted the meals of ... 

This is grammatical but awkward, and it requires planning for the postnominal of-possessive ahead of time.

Finally, he could have opted for a more complex kind of relative clause, with an initial multi-word WH expression:

whose meals I interrupted ...

This requires considerable planning ahead -- formulating the rest of the relative clause in some detail before even beginning it.

Remember that Richardson was composing the sentence in real time, as he went along, not just reeling out some rehearsed material.  Partway through the clause he came to the point where he needed to refer to the meals, and, recognizing that a determiner gap wouldn't fly, he did the next best thing, namely, use a pronoun determiner (their) instead.  So he produced a gapless relative, of a fairly routine sort.

Not that Richardson did any of this consciously, of course.

[Added 1/13: Several correspondents have pointed out that Richardson speaks Spanish as well as English, so that interference from Spanish might have contributed to the form of the relative clause.  Still, the gapless relative he produced is of a familiar type in the speech of monolinguals.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 12, 2008 03:06 PM