In yesterday's post
Geoff Pullum wrote:
With coordinators you can get what is called multiple coordination, as in red and orange and green and yellow and blue, which doesn't group the color names together in clusters of two, it just connects all of them. With prepositions you don't get that.
Last night this came back to me as I came across the words versus
while reading. It's another of these Latin preposition-cum-English something-or-others. "Could you chain these without nesting," I wondered. This morning, I find that indeed you can. Here are some examples:
- It appears some genetic risk factors are drug-specific (i.e., opioid versus alcohol versus tobacco dependence) and some non-specific (i.e., perhaps more like a personality-related vulnerability factor).
- The people I worked with, like other Americans. see class as a system of oppositions -- poor versus rich versus a middle ground in which they locate themselves.
- Muggia FM, Braly PS, Brady MF, et al. Phase III randomized study of cisplatin versus paclitaxel versus cisplatin and paclitaxel in patients with suboptimal stage III or IV ovarian cancer
- An analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to investigate the performance in 2-D matrices only and considered the between-subjects variable of group (congenital versus late visual impairment) and the within-subject variables of modality (visual versus tactile), condition (single versus multiple versus integration), and number of targets (four versus six).
- Just as if you were buying an investment for yourself, look at the specific needs of the recipient-short-term versus intermediate versus long-term goals.
So is versus
a strange preposition or a strange coordinator?
I would argue that the reason 'versus' can be used in (what at least appears to be) multiple coordination is because its meaning is bidirectional. Contrast that against Geoff's examples 'on' and 'of'.
opioid versus alcohol versus tobacco
is equivalent to
alchohol versus opioid versus tobacco
tobacco versus alcohol versus opioid
(except in sports where 'versus' vs 'at' implies which team is the home team)
kitten on a box
is not the same as
box on a kitten
This would appear to lend itself to a 'Transitive Law of Bidirectional Prepositions' with an appropriate 'Commutative Law' corollary. So perhaps these examples with 'versus' actually are not examples of multiple coordination. Or else we need to relax the definition of mutiple coordination to only bidirectional coordinators AND prepositions. (I suspect that coordinators also require bidirectionality to multi-coordinate, for instance contrast 'There was a dog and a cat and a fish.' with '*There was (not) a dog but a cat but a fish').
Of course, the only other bidirectional preposition I can think of at the moment is 'against' when used like versus ('The challenge pitted Rob against John against Fred' but not 'He bumped the board against the table against the wall') so perhaps this is unique to 'versus' after all.
I'd say this is more of an illustration of the limits to the utility of grammatical categories. We already know that they are fuzzy in the sense that not all their members are as good examples of their properties as others. But they also become reified and labeling things with them becomes an end in itself. They can be very useful. If I say "book" is both a noun and a verb, I can make useful inferences as to its morphology, syntactic behavior and distribution. That's why it's useful to break up conjunctions into coordinators and subordinators. The label can provide useful information.
But I wonder what useful information can be gained by labeling versus as either preposition or coordinator. It's a one off lexical item that sits somewhere between the categories and it's because of its uniqueness that we already know everything there's to know about it. Labeling it doesn't provide any additional useful information.
I think it's a coordinator, because the semantics don't match what you'd expect if either coordinand were the head. With cum and slash we weren't sure, because either coordinand would make sense as the head. (A sentence like "the X-cum-Y is […]" or "the X-slash-Y is […]" has roughly the same meaning if "X-cum-" or "X-slash-" or "-cum-Y" or "-slash-Y" is dropped, so we can suppose that any of those potential droppees is a modifier. Not so with "the X versus the Y".)
I tend to agree with Rob Van Dam; I am not sure whether 'multiple coordination' can be a decisive test for categories.
Even verbs can be bidirectional, allowing multiple coordination, as in 'This band is really interesting; it's like Pink Floyd meets Linkin Park meets Afro Celts meets ...'.
I am yet to come up with a bidirectional preposition, though.
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