March 23, 2008

Article-article article abstract

Below is a conference abstract for a paper that grew, in part, out of material I was preparing for Language Log.  The paper was scheduled to be given at the American Dialect Society meetings in January, but because of sickness I wasn't able to give it then.  I then started expanding the abstract into a posting for Language Log, but of course it's been ballooning.  So here's the abstract as a promissory note.

Article-article article:
Faithfulness meets Well-Formedness (again)

Case 1.  Some proper names in English begin with an article: The Simpsons.  Proper names can be used as prenominal modifiers -- Macbeth performance -- but then these nominals need a determiner to serve as full NPs: a/the/this Macbeth performance.  What happens when we put these two things together: a The Simpsons show (preserving both articles) or a Simpsons show (suppressing one article to fit the syntactic patterns of English)?

Case 2.  Some quantity modifiers in English begin with the article a: a lot.  Quantity modifiers can modify comparatives -- much bigger -- and the combinations can modify nouns -- much bigger dog -- but the resulting nominals need a determiner to serve as full NPs: a/the/this much bigger dog.  What happens when we put these two things together: an a lot bigger dog (preserving both articles), or a lot bigger dog (suppressing one article)?

In both cases, Faithfulness (Faith: preserve the form of the proper name or quantity modifier) conflicts with Well-Formedness (WF: make things fit the syntax of the language).  When Faith meets WF, there are several possible outcomes: stalemate (neither resolution acceptable), resolution in favor of one or the other alternative, variation (both resolutions acceptable).

For article + article, pretty much everything goes, but it's not chaotic.  In general, WF usually wins, but all possibilities are attested; the two cases are not entirely parallel; and the choices depend a lot on the particular items involved and the contexts they're in.

I relate these two conflicts between Faith and WF to a large number of other cases, involving the conventions of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling; the treatment of taboo vocabulary; "semantic" vs. "grammatical" determination in agreement; assignment of nouns to Count vs. Mass; and much more.

Appendix: Faith vs. WF on Language Log:

1/29/06: Dubious quotation marks

4/9/07: Ducky identity
8/1/07: Cousin of eggcorn
8/12/07: e e cummings and his iPod: Faith vs. WF again

9/21/07: Punctuational hypercorrection

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 23, 2008 10:26 AM