Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wonky content clauses

For quite some time I've been noticing clauses of the type exemplified in this sentence: "Mr. McCain was asked what would Republicans do in response." (from the NY Times here). Traditional grammatical description often calls the bolded clause a noun clause, but following the CGEL, and for good reason, I'll call it a content clause.

The thing that's wonky about it, if you haven't noticed, is that interrogative content clauses don't typically undergo subject-auxiliary inversion. That is, you would expect Mr. McCain was asked what Republicans would do in response, with would following the subject instead of preceding it. I hear these on the radio all the time, but they're ephemeral, and I'm rarely positive that what I've heard is reported speech as opposed to a quotation or pseudo-quotation along the lines of Mr. McCain was asked, "what will Republicans do in response." 

The example here, however, is unambiguous, and not just because of the punctuation. The use of backshifted would instead of will clearly signals reported speech rather than quotation.

There are only 46 examples in the COCA, at least using this search ([ask] + question word + modal + pronoun). And another 71 if you change the modal to be. You could do this with other auxiliaries, but obviously, it's unusual. Because of its rarity, it's difficult to look at the change in frequency over time, and indeed there's no pattern that I can see, but it is clearly most common in speech.

Another type of content clause that's doing weird things is the type following about as exemplified here: "I mean, every time you hear about we want a bailout, we need money, I get it." (You can get more examples here.) 

I would expect either a non-finite clause (e.g., I mean, every time you hear about people wanting a bailout...) or an interrogative content clause (e.g., I mean, every time you hear about how people want a bailout...). But instead, we get a simple declarative content clause, in other words, one that is subordinate, but has the normal syntax of a typical main clause.

This type of wonky clause is more common than the first type, and the graph at COCA shows a trend towards more frequent use, though I don't know whether this is significant or not.

I wonder if there's any link between the two.


Q Higuchi said...

Actually, that's part of what I have been wondering about, too. On the one hand, we are looking at main-clause phenomena occurring in subordinate clauses; on the other, we are looking at full-fledged finite clauses behaving like nonfinite clauses. Wherever there is a syntactic boundary, there are some grey areas there.

In this connection, I have been intrigued by how the phrase 'in terms of' behaves these days: it is often directly followed by a finite clause (usually in speech, I believe). Let me copy & paste just a couple from a quick Google search.

a. The biggest things in science, I think, are cosmology and evolutionary biology in terms of they're touching on the biggest questions of all, dealing with who we are, where we came from, where we're going, where the universe started and where it's going and so forth.

b. The users are let completely in on the whole thing in terms of they understand why we’re there and what we’re doing.

Brett said...

I hadn't noticed the in terms of examples, but I had been aware of on account of. Rodney Huddleston brought them up again last week when I mailed him about the about examples. He sent me these:

"I always thought I'd make a good detective, on account of I'm so nosy."
"`Maybe you could get your friend Ranger to help her,' Grandma said. `That might be better anyway, on account of he's hot.'"

Ran said...

Regarding the first one, I wonder if it might be an American thing? Because while I myself (an Ohioan) don't usually invert subject and verb in indirect questions, and am surprised to find the Times doing so, what I'm really surprised by is your suggestion that it's unusual. I hear it all the time, and consider it merely colloquial. (In my experience it's most common when the question is "live", so to speak; for example, "I wonder what was he doing" sounds more natural to me than "he told me what was he doing".)

Jan said...

I'm with you on the wonkiness of the first and second examples, but "on account of I'm x" has been familiar (jocular usage) to me for a long time. It's in "West Side Story":

DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion on this court, this child is depraved on account he ain't had a normal home.

ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived.

Brett said...

When I say it's unusual, I'm going by the frequency in the corpus. My intuition too is that I hear it regularly, but I have no way to substantiate that.