Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Subjacency intuitions

I've been reading an old Chomsky book, Language and Mind, lately. As usual, the moment he starts discussing what would eventually be called subjacency I find my intuitions are systematically different from his, and I'm curious: how common is this? By way of testing, here's a few sentences in English: which ones would you consider ungrammatical/unacceptable as phrased?
  1. That's the boy who they intercepted John's message to.
  2. That's the boy who he believed the claim that John tricked.
  3. That was a lecture that for him to understand was difficult.
  4. Which book did John wonder why Bill had read?
  5. Which book did John think that Bill had read?
  6. What would you approve of John's drinking?
  7. What would you approve of John's excessive drinking of?
Chomsky's grammaticality judgements will be provided later - they're on pp. 50-54 of the book.

18 comments:

dormirdebout said...

well, I think that only 2 and 6 are strictly ungrammatical. the rest seem to be grammatically allowable, but not acceptable as far as english sentences go; that is, they make sense but i don't think one would ever naturally write those sentences.

Daniel said...

To me, only #5 is acceptable. But then I'm not strictly a native speaker of English.

CIngram said...

It seems to me that 2 and 7 are not grammatical (I'm not sure I've understood what 7 is trying to do), whereas 5, 6, and 1 are things people might actually say (1 is better without the 'who', but it doesn't alter the grammatical structure.

3 has an unusual word order but doesn't strike me as wrong grammatically, and 4 has a complexity of recursion which people tend not to employ, although again there seems to be nothing wrong with it.

D. Sky Onosson said...

Without reading everyone's comments, or the correct answers, my intuitions are:

1. Fine
2. Bad
3. Questionable
4. Bad
5. Fine
6. Questionable
7. Fine

I'm a native English speaker from Canada.

Aleatha Parker-Wood said...

Native English speaker from the Pac. Northwest...

To me, 1, 4, and 5 are all grammatical, 7 is grammatical but convoluted (Basically: "name a substance you would approve of John drinking in excess"), and the rest are not grammatical. None of these sound like regionalisms to me, so I'm curious whether there is an pattern to the judgements here.

Nijma said...

Ungrammatical: 2, 6.
Originally I thought 7 was ungrammatical as well, but after reading it out loud, it does sound correct, if a bit convoluted.

I'm a native speaker of English from the midwest, currently living in Chicago.

John Cowan said...

Here are my wife Gale's responses when I read the sentences out loud to her (as many times as she wanted). She's an English teacher (and so thinks in terms of fixing other people's prose) but not a linguist.

1. Awkward, needs repair.
2. Immediately bad.
3. Need to think it through before I understood it.
4. Awful.
5. Okay but clunky.
6. Passable but clunky.
7. Impossible.

Anonymous said...

All fine except 2.

Those were sentences that for me to understand were difficult.

mark said...

I'm not a native speaker, so my judgements are to be trusted even less than Chomsky's. But based on quite some exposure to real life usage events of English (spoken as well as written), all of these sentences sound awfully constructed, with 5 being the least awful (and probably having the highest corpus frequency).

Anonymous said...

1, 4, and 5: grammatical
7: ?
6: *?
3: *
2: **, a severe violation

So my intuitions match those of Aleatha above, so at least it's not wholly random. Native speaker of standard England English.

David Marjanović said...

1: Convoluted, and not recommended, but possible.
2: It clicked once I interpreted "who" as "whom". Clumsy but comprehensible (under that interpretation).
3: Almost fine. It's just the perfectly normal "that was a lecture that was difficult for him to understand" in a different word order.
4: Impossible. More or less incomprehensible.
5: Normal. I might write it myself.
6: Wrong. Yeah, OK, if I think a loop around it it might work, but...
7: Bad.

Nonnative speaker, no contact with native speakers in meatspace except at scientific congresses and a few other occasions, but I read and write in English on teh intart00bz every day, not to mention reading and writing scientific papers in English.

David Marjanović said...

3 is, I have to admit, in a word order that is extremely unusual for English. German (my native language) has a high tolerance for rare-but-not-completely-impossible word orders...

Malik said...

As I see it, only 5 is acceptable.

1) is ungrammatical because "to" is not a preposition that can be combined with the verb "intercept". And of course who is a subject pronoun, not an object pronoun, but the two are commonly interchanged and it doesn't affect understanding.

2) is ungrammatical as well as incomprehensible because you cannot tell which pronouns belong to which clause

3) is grammatical but very awkward because the subject complement is placed after the phrase that modifies it.

4) is grammatical, but awkward and vague.

5) is grammatical, but it doesn't need a relative pronoun.

6) is grammatical but nonsensical. You can't really select a discrete element of John's drinking, which is what the interrogative "what" implies.

7)is grammatical but awkward.

Robin Lee Powell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robin Lee Powell said...

Being purely intuitive. Native English speaker, mostly raised in Canada but now in the US. (I saw jcowan's wife's replies before the post; though not in detail, but that's why I'm using "clunky" :).

1. clunky
2. wrong; can't even figure out what it's *supposed* to mean.
3. clunky
4 & 5: identical AFAICT for grammatical purposes; clunky, but slightly less so; I can imagine actually using these.
6. wrong; approval is binary, "what" does not apply. Drop the "what" and it's just fine.
7. clunky

-Robin

asikha said...

Only 5 and 6 sound acceptable. The rest don't make good sense.

jdm said...

I think the ones which are definitely wrong are one and two, whereas, 6 and 7 (and possibly 3) only seem to be conceivable within a very narrow particular context. for example I could only understand "What would you approve of John's excessive drinking of?" as an emphatic rhetorical response to a statement like "I don't approve of John's excessive drinking of milk?" But just because I can think of a strange hypothetical example of how a phrase might be used, doesn't make it grammatical.

jdm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.