Sunday, April 01, 2007

Rarely missing a chance to overanalyze (Crosspost from LL)

A few days ago, I wrote the following sentence:

1. I rarely miss a Daily Show, though sometimes not for several days after the fact.

As I read it over at the time, I had a sensation of overnegation bizarrity, but after thinking about it for awhile, I decided that it did say what I wanted it to say, although in a fairly obscure way, which I thought might be amusing, so I left it. Almost immediately after I posted it, though, alert reader Sridhar Ramesh wrote in with a description of having gone through the same boggle, pause, click of comprehension, pause, but it's still weird! that I did, and I though I'd go back and think about it some more.

I don't think there's an overnegation in the sentence—it has just the right amount of negation—but there's a weird ellipsis-reconstruction problem: the understood verb phrase inside the though-clause has to be understood as containing something that does not correspond to a syntactic constituent in the antecedent mail clause.

Here's the way the problem goes, I think.

"I rarely miss a Daily Show" is interpretively equivalent to "I usually watch the Daily Show." Informally, one could say that "miss" = "not watch"1, and "rarely" = "not usually", and the two negations cancel each other out, interpretively, like this:

2. a. I [rarely [miss a Daily Show]] -->

2. b. I do[n't [usually [not [watch the Daily Show]]]] -->

2. c. I [usually [watch the Daily Show]].


Now, consider what happens if I replace "rarely miss" with "usually watch" in my weird sentence above:

3. I usually watch a Daily Show, though sometimes not for several days after the fact.

This has a totally unobjectionable interpretation, derived by filling in an elided "I watch it" in the though clause, modified by the not in the though clause.2 This is shown in (4) below. I have colored the filled-in material red and put it in brackets so you don't lose track of it. The antecedent of the filled-in material is underlined.3

4. I usually watch a Daily Showi, though sometimes (I) don't (watch iti) for several days after the fact.

That is, as Sridhar notes, my not watching it can extend for several days before ending with my watching it. Note that it's not my usually not watching it that extends for several days -- the usually is not part of the filled-in material, just the VP watch the Daily Show.

In order to get this reading out of my actual sentence, one has to dissect "miss" into "not watch". If you don't do this, and reconstruct the elision as involving the actually present VP miss a Daily Show, you get the overnegation problem:

5. I rarely miss a Daily Showi, though sometimes (I) don't(miss iti) for several days after the fact.

The though-clause here is saying there are several days of my not missing a given Daily Show followed by my missing it. That is, it sounds like I watch it repeatedly for several days and then begin to miss it.

The 'good' reading for the sentence that I and Sridhar were getting is based on decomposing 'miss a Daily Show' into 'not watch a Daily Show', as in (2b) above:

6. a. I rarely [miss a Daily Show]

6. b. I rarely do[n't [watch a Daily Show]]


After filling in the elided bit, this would give the right interpretation, namely, one in which [watch it] is the reconstructed constituent:4

7. I rarely don't watch a Daily Showi, but sometimes (I) don't (watch iti) for several days after the fact.

The key thing about (7), of course, is that it involves reconstructing a subpart of the decomposed "miss a Daily Show". This is what's making the sentence in (1) feel so bizarre. That subpart is not present in the syntax of the antecedent clause; if it's present at all, it's only in the sentence's 'logical form'.

One approach to ellipsis phenomena says that the whole understood sentence, repeated material and all, is actually present in the speaker's mental syntax, but because some bit of it is identical to some other bit of it, the second instance of the identical bit is simpy not pronounced. If this is how ellipsis works, we can understand the bizarre feeling: Ellipsis involves non-pronunciation of material that is syntactically identical with its antecedent, so the deleted phrase would have to be the whole verb phrase miss a Daily Show, not some deconstructed semantic subpart of it which isn't present in the real syntax. (See, e.g., Jason Merchant's work.)

Another approach to ellipsis says that the speaker doesn't bother constructing the syntax for the elided bit; rather, it's just not present at all, and the hearer reconstructs it from the semantic interpretation of the antecedent clause. (see, e.g., Ray Jackendoff and Peter Culicover's work). Under that approach, the bizarre feeling might show that miss is not decomposable, semantically; although the lexical meaning crucially involves a negative implication of some kind, the negative part of the meaning can't be prised apart from the rest of the meaning.



Either way, the bizarre feeling Sridhar and I get from (1) shows that in some important way, watch the Daily Show is not a subpart of miss the Daily Show.


1Actually, the imagined negated verb probably shouldn't be 'watch' here -- it'd be safer to posit a more general negated verb like 'not experience' with this reading of 'miss'. That would cover things like 'I missed the dance', where you don't mean 'I didn't watch the dance', but probably 'I didn't attend the dance'; 'I didn't experience the dance' would cover it), or 'I missed what you just said', where you don't mean 'I didn't watch what you just said', but rather, 'I didn't hear what you just said' -- 'I didn't experence what you just said' would cover that too. Nonetheless I'm going to go with watch rather than experience just coz the problem is already complicated enough; it doesn't change anything about the reasoning undertaken below, though.

2I represent the filled-in-bit as 'I watch it' rather than 'I watch a Daily Show' because using the latter to elucidate the filled-in-bit wouldn't give the necessary bound-variable reading of the object of 'watch' in the elided bit; 'it', however, does. Just consider it a slight fictionalization that allows me to gloss over a discussion of why an overt repeated 'a Daily Show' wouldn't give right bound variable reading and the mechanics of how some syntacticians think an invisible, elided 'a Daily Show' can give such a reading.

3 For another LL discussion of ellipsis phenomena see this post of David Beaver's.

4Note that the n't in the though-clause is not the same as the n't in the main clause. It's crucial to leave that main clause negation behind, otherwise you end up with the bad interpretation in (5), where it's my not watching it, i.e. my missing it, that starts several days after the initial air date.)

Comments?

12 Comments:

Blogger Don Porges said...

And then there's the well-known Goldwynism, "Don't miss it if you can". (Apocryphal.)

5:13 PM  
Blogger Jakob Tomasovich said...

It still sounds wierd to me.

Perhaps it is because "miss" has a sort of temporal aspect: you miss something which occurs at a particular time.

I am not convinced that not missing something is equivalent to watching it. For example, if someone says;

"I didn't miss this week's daily show on Thursay"

It sounds like they are saying that it was broadcast on Thursday, and that they didn't miss it. It would be a stretch to interpret that sentence as saying that they watched this week's daily show on Thursday rather than its day of broadcast.

7:28 PM  
Anonymous russell said...

I think I'd prefer the "for" to be "until", given the use of "after the fact", because then the time phrase makes more sense to me. That is: Sometimes I don't watch it until/??for several days afterwards

But, ignoring the until/for issue, I think I would prefer to read the sentence like this:

I rarely miss a Daily Show, though sometimes (this is) not (true) until/for several days after the fact.

[where "this" = "me rarely missing the daily show"]

Though perhaps this particular brand of ellipsis (stripping, I suppose it's usually called) does not usually allow the remnant to take scope as I would like it to.

10:53 PM  
Anonymous Luis said...

I wonder if it is possible to replicate this pattern with other verbs. What about this?

I rarely forget the names of my former students, though sometimes not for/until several years after their graduation.
[forget=not remember]

Now, here is something I didn't get: are you saying that "miss" is syntactically analysable as "not experience"? Or is just that they have the same meaning, and that's what licenses ellipsis? I ask because, for Merchant, syntactic identity is not that important: what matters is that the elided part and their antecedent entail each other. On the other hand, you have worked so much on lexical decomposition...

12:41 AM  
Blogger hh said...

I see I wasn't too clear -- in the end I actually think my sentence is NOT grammatical on the intended reading, and the whole thrashing around in this post is trying to understand why I thought it WAS grammatical. I actually think it shows you can't decompose 'miss' into 'not experience'/'not watch', whatever, because if you COULD do that, the stripping should be grammatical. I think.
I also agree that 'until' is more precise than 'for' in this context, at least in something like "I usually watch the daily show, though sometimes not until several days after the fact" though switching to 'until' doesn't help with the main 'rarely miss' problem in the original sentence.

2:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something not related to your piece, but to that particular Daily Show segment. During the bit about n*gg*r being the "desert of racial slurs," Wilmore said "You can't say that...you just equated the n-word to a dessert."

I seems that this little rhetorical trope is rather common nowadays. Person 1 laments bad thing A and person 2 uses analogy, simile, or direct comparison relate A to bad thing B in 2's more immediate frame of reference. Person 1 responds with "OMG you *cannot* compare / equate A to B!" The point being, "Enough about you, let's get back to how my life stinks."

It seems to me that "compare" or "equate" might not mean what person 1 thinks they mean.

5:53 AM  
Anonymous russell said...

Ah, yes, I wasn't sure exactly how your (or I, for that matter) wanted to treat the acceptability of the sentence. It was certainly understandable, especially given the previous "thanks to the miracle of tivo."

Also, when I looked back at the original, I noticed the next sentence was "such is the case wrt wednesday's show," which is great: what exactly is the case? I (and my colleague sitting next to me) have agreed that basically what is the case wrt Wed.'s show is that "HH didn't miss it," though not necessarily by watching it on tivo. (That is, if you ignore the appositive clause that spells out exactly the fact that you watched it on tivo). However, I was originally of the mind that the "such" must have meant that you watched it on tivo; but after trying to reread the sentence at a natural speed, I found the other reading available.

Other semantically-comparable sentences, though, might get you something different...hmm, maybe I'll have to write a little thing about this.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Colin Batchelor said...

I'm imagining a case where a boat might stop at several places on my island before sailing off elsewhere.

In that case I can imagine saying "I rarely miss the MV Heidi, though sometimes not until it calls at Westport".

And here "miss" might mean "not see", "not board", "not deliver eggs to to sell on the mainland".

1:54 PM  
Blogger Andrea Roth said...

What if the problem with that sentence was the reference to "Daily Show" as the "fact" rather than its grammatical construction?

9:44 AM  
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