Saturday, July 03, 2010

A gapless afternoon

Yesterday we had my brother and his family over. We were sitting on the deck relaxing after lunch when Craig came up with the following: It's a country in Africa which I don't even know if it exists anymore. "A gapless relative clause," though I, going inside and jotting it down so as not to forget the wording.

About three years ago, Arnold Zwicky identified three types of gapless clauses on Language Log. The example above is one with a resumptive pronoun, but one which can't simply be dropped. Highly coincidentally, a few minutes later my mother produced one, which I failed to write down. (No, we don't typically go around stopping up gaps in clauses.) Unlike my brother's, however, hers had a resumptive pronoun which would typically be dropped. It was something like That's another one that it doesn't work.

Craig's it is in a content clause inside the relative clause, but there are cases where that doesn't matter:
  • It's in a country in Africa which I know __ exists.
The above is a bare content clause. As soon as you mark the content clause with a subordinator (that, which, how, or whether), though, it can no longer be gapped.
  • *It's a country in Africa which I know that __ exists.
  • *It's a country in Africa which I wonder whether __ exists.
  • *It's a country in Africa which I wonder how __ could exist.
So, here's a fact that I wonder what it might tell us about English grammar. (NB, I'm fully aware that the sentence could easily be reworded. In fact, when asked about it, my brother mentioned that it had felt a bit awkward coming out, and then he came up with an alternative.)

Later, I was scrubbing the mold/mildew/algae off the deck, which has become dark and slippery when wet, and chatting with my nephew, who's just completed grade five. It was a grammar chat. We'd talked before about nouns and verbs, and it turned out they hadn't really talked about them at school. Yesterday we talked about adjectives. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: So, do you remember what an adjective is?
Nephew: Um, something that describes a noun. Like the box is big. Big is an adjective.
M: Sure, but like nouns and verbs, adjectives can't be clearly defined just by talking about their meaning. You see that ball there?
N: Which one?
M: The white one with black on it.
N: The soccer ball?
M: Yeah. Is soccer describing ball.
N: I guess.
M: Is it an adjective.
N: No.
M: So what is it?
N: It's a noun.
M: Exactly. So, nouns also describe nouns. And what about a dripping faucet?
N: You mean is dripping an adjective?
M: Right.
N: No, it's more like a verb.
M: Right again. So what can describe a noun?
N: Adjectives and nouns and verbs.
M: OK, so how about interesting in an interesting book? Is that an adjective?
N: Yeah. I think so.
M: I think you're right. But why is interesting an adjective when dripping is a verb.
N: Because you can't interest something. Oh, but I guess you can interest someone. Hmm...
M: Good point, but I still think you're right. So, what characteristic does interesting have that dripping doesn't? Think about words that can come before adjectives.
N: Uh an adverb? Like very. (Really, he just came up with it.)
M: Great! That's a really good test for adjectives. If you can put it in front of it, it's not a verb.

We went on to discuss a few exceptions and  talk about the difference between using introspection and evidence. He said that they'd done some worksheets at school, but this was much more detailed information than they'd been given. He also said it was much more interesting talking about it this way than how they did it at school. If this simple Socratic dialogue is more interesting than how they do it at school, that's not saying much for the teachers. But I expect few of them know much beyond "an adjective is a word that describes a noun." Not that that's entirely their fault. Nobody taught them any different, and there's little out there to help them notice the gap.

1 comment:

Mike Maxwell said...

COMP-trace "filter", see Joan Bresnan 1972, Theory of Complementation in English Syntax, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, MIT, Cambridge, Mass. Or see