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Syntactic methodology in rural Virginia

July 30, 2010

So it’s time for a thought experiment! I’m driving through rural Virginia. Really really rural. Really really Virginia. And there are signs here (I’ll add a picture whenever I can get one without causing an accident) that read:

(1) Stop for SCHOOLBUS loading or unloading CHILDREN.

Leaving aside the inexplicable EMPHASIS, I considered briefly the loading or unloading children phrase.

So imagine, for a moment, that I’m the DA in… what county am I in? Harrisonburg, or somesuch. Imagine also that I am faced with a man, let’s call him Joe, who is contesting a traffic ticket he got for passing a schoolbus unsafely about 100 feet after one of these signs. Joe claims that he was under the impression that he was required to stop for a schoolbus only when he was loading or unloading children.

Mind, we know logically that this is highly stupid. Most judges would just tell him that, fine him, send him to traffic school, and buy the trooper who pulled him over a beer after work. This judge, however, has a deep weakness in his heart for proving that the letter and the spirit of the law are somehow matched. So he takes me into a back room, and tells me that if I can prove that the defendent has no linguistic excuse (assuming he’s a native English speaker, and we will for the moment do just that) to have misinterpreted the sign, then he’ll take me and all my linguist buddies out for drinks after this.

Once I am appropriately motivated, I of course start in on the syntax of the sign. Now, I have not yet personally tackled gerunds/gerundives in my syntactic exploits, so I don’t totally know what to do with the [loading or unloading childred] chunk. For now, I declare it an adverbial PP, with the head [while] assumed to be silent. This fits in with both readings:

(2a) (You) stop for schoolbus (while) (it is) loading or unloading children.
(2b) (You) stop for schoolbus (while) (you are) loading or unloading children.

The defendant claims that (2b) is a reasonable reading of (1), while I must prove that syntactically (2a) is the only reasonable reading. How shall I do this? Well, PPs are quite mobile, aren’t they?

Now, in the adverbial PP above, we have the head P selecting as its complement an entire TP which just so happens to be in the present progressive. This means that somewhere in that TP, there’s a VP, and somewhere in that VP, there’s a subject to the verbs. This is, at some level, what we’re after– but more importantly, we’re after the ability to move or delete that subject, since it obviously does not appear in the surface form.

One way for me to test this would be to test a series of similar sentences that have the anaphoric structure of (2a) and (2b), to see which would be more likely to allow for the deletion of the second subject. This would provide very strong evidence in my favor: [schoolbus] is the closest noun to the deleted subject, which strongly implies that pragmatically it would be the most favorable. However, the fact that (2b) is a felicitous sentence at all suggests that this is not enough to fully prove (2a)’s dominance.

Back to the PP mobility issue. As an adverbial PP, the structure should be able to adjoin directly to the VP (stop for schoolbus) on either side. Let’s test this:

(3a) (While) (it is) loading or unloading children, (you must) stop for schoolbus.
(3b) (While) (you are) loading or unloading children, (you must) stop for schoolbus.

Interestingly, this stifles the deletability of the head P (while) and the subjects:

(4) *Loading or unloading children, stop for schoolbus.
(4x) While unloading or loading children, stop for schoolbus.

In (4), we find that we can’t delete the head P at all. If we retain it, however, we get (4x), which has a very strong (if slightly nonsensical– but that’s the defendant’s problem, not mine) reading that You is the subject of the loading/unloading. This is once again a proximity thing in terms of the anaphora: you is at that point the closest possible subject. This is some stronger evidence in favor of proximity deciding the pragmatic content of the deleted subject.

This is the tricky bit. We put the court in recess while I go find a bloody mary. (Sobriety is for those who don’t have to write about syntax.)

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