Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Thanks to mi friend Gustavo Faverón, I discovered a written text (actually, two) where disuadir (to dissuade) is used as if it were persuadir (to persuade):

"¿Cómo es posible que siglos de escritura no hayan disuadido a algunos de publicar sólo lo realmente necesario o imprescindible?", se pregunta el narrador de “Fértil sequía”, relato del último libro, El sentido de los límites, de Carlos Schwalb Tola. Cuestionamiento válido, sin duda, pero que no parece haber sido del todo asimilado por el autor.
Olga Arellano in Correo Perú
I had heard this neutralization, but this is the first time I have seen it in writing. It is very interesting. Take a look to the relevant part: "How it is possible that centuries of writing have not dissuaded some people from publishing only what is really necessary or indispensable?". The intention is to say that centuries of writing should have dissuaded people from publishing what is not necessary or indispensable. Somehow, the negation raises from the substantivized adjective (which we can translate as a free relative in English) to the matrix verb, with no semantic effects. This is more that unusual in standard Spanish, where the sentence, maintaining the negation in the matrix verb, should have been:

(1) ¿Cómo es posible que siglos de escritura no hayan persuadido a algunos de publicar sólo lo realmente necesario o imprescindible?
How it is possible that centuries of writing have not persuaded some people from publishing only what is really necessary or indispensable?

So, somehow, to dissuade became to persuade. It is important to keep in mind that this is not just a typo. The sentence is a quotation from a literary work (so, the neutralization started there), and the journalist not only cites it, but she even comments on the relevant meaning (so, accepting the neutralization).

It is not really clear why this neutralization happens. Perhaps it is just an instance of negation raising, but with the exceptional characteristic that it happens from a phrase.

It is well known that negation raising has a peculiar behavior in Spanish and other languages. For instance, when we use the modal verb querer (want) with negation and a finite clause as complement:

(2) Yo no quiero que nadie sea arrestado
I NEG want that nobody be arrested

(2) can have different meanings:

i---There is nobody that I want to be arrested
ii---It is not the case that I want that nobody be arrested
iii---I want that nobody be arrested [spurious negation]

(iii) is interesting because it is like NO it is not there. The reading in (iii) becomes salient if we postpone nadie:

(3) Yo no quiero que sea arrestado nadie
I NEG want that be arrested nobody

And, more interesting, if we drop the negation, this is OK with the preverbal nadie but not with the postverbal nadie:

(4) Yo quiero que nadie sea arrestado
I want that nobody be arrested

(5) ?* Yo quiero que sea arrestado nadie
I want that be arrested nobody

But (5) improves with emphatic NADIE (which is, perhaps, right-dislocated):

(6) ? Yo quiero que sea arrestado NADIE
I want that be arrested NOBODY

Coming back to (1), we see that this is indeed a special context: there is negation, a subjunctive verb, and solo (only, a focalizer), and everything is embedded in a question with a modal expression---all of them very well known triggers of interesting effects. Perhaps it is a big conspiracy.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Is the Anacoluthon grammatical?

This is an old question, and it is not by any mean just restricted to Spanish. In general, an anacoluthon happens when a phrase is "out of the sentence," that is, when somebody starts a sentence in a way that leads us to expect certain grammatical resolution, but it concludes in a way that is not consistent with this expectation. It is far more common in the spoken language. Take for instance, this example from Silva Rhetoricae:

(1) Athletes convicted of drug-related crimes—are they to be forgiven with just a slap on the wrist?

The first phrase Athletes convicted of drug-related crimes is not part of the whole sentence from a strictly grammatical point of view; it does not have a syntactic function, it is not the subject or the object, or anything like that. Now, an anacoluthon like (1) is actually a rethoric figure, and probably the same happens with its corresponding Spanish version (2):

(2) Atletas condenados por crimes relacionados con las drogas—los debemos perdonar con solo una palmada en el trasero?

Although the anacoluthon is heavily condemned by the prescriptive discourse, it is likely that even a hard-to-die prescriptivist had difficulties banning (2). Many other anacolutha are not so lucky. For instance, these expressions are be considered unappropiate:

(3) El ventero, que no conocía a don Quijote, tan admirado le tenían sus locuras como su liberalidad

(4) Las pastoras de quien hemos de ser amantes, como entre peras podremos escoger sus nombres

(5) Dio orden a todos sus criados del modo que habían de tratar a don Quijote, el cual, como llegó con la Duquesa a las puertas del castillo, al instante salieron dél dos lacayos

All of them, however, come from Don Quixote, the most praised literary work in the Spanish language, and a novel that it is usually presented as a model for good writing by the prescritivists.

The interesting question, that I do not solve here, is what exactly licenses the anacoluthon, and what is its relation with the subsequent sentence. Is it part of the sentence? Is it part of its syntactic structure? If it is not, how does it enters into its informational structure?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Unexpected meanings in deverbal nouns

Deverbal nouns can selectively absorb and destroy the thematic roles of the verb from which they derive. If the verb destroy asks an agent and a theme (the destructor and what is destroyed), the noun destruction can appear without them: the destruction was terrible. This allows the noun to obtain idiosyncratic meanings. For instance, the English deverbal noun building (as the Spanish deverbal noun construcción) can be used to refer to an edifice. Notice this is not just the typical nominal of result (Grimshaw 1990, and others), because it is not the case that building refers to anything that has been built (a clock, for instance), but specifically to an edifice; so no any result of the action of building will be a possible reference; the choice of the particular result is entirely idiosyncratic.

And the way the thematic role is absorbed, destroyed or transmitted can create some ambiguities. For instance, the noun phrase la destrucción de Roma is ambiguous in Spanish: Roma can be the agent (the destroyer) or the theme (what is destroyed)---several English speakers have told me that this is not the case in the corresponding English phrase the destruction of Rome, where Rome can be only the theme.

I have dedicated more than one paper to this particular issue. A brief online version can be seen here (in Spanish). Now, thanks to my friend Gustavo Faverón Patriau, I have discovered a very interesting case, that confirms the picture outlined there.

The Peruvian Department of Health has published an educational handbook to instruct health promoters about the control of tuberculosis. The title of this handbook is Yo Promotor. Manual para promotores de TBC. You can read the handbook in the website of the Department. The subtitle contains the deverbal noun promotores (promoters). Take a look at the phrase:

(1) Manual para promotores de TBC
(lit. Handbook for Promoters of TB)

It is possible to interpret the phrase “de TBC” as the theme of promoter. If so, the meaning is an unintended one: a manual to promote TB. What happened? Does the Department of Health want to promote TB? Certainly not.

In this case, the Spanish deverbal noun promotor underwent the same process that building. The original phrase is promotor de salud (“promoter of health”), which has became promotor without loosing the meaning “de salud”; in other words, in the professional jargon of health promoters, the noun promotor simply means “promoter of health”, in the same way building means edifice.

If that is the case, there is nothing odd with (1). The phrase “de TBC” cannot be the theme because the deverbal noun has absorbed the theme already (it is “de salud”). So (1) can only mean a handbook for promoters of health about TB. Of course, (1) is odd for speakers that do not share this jargon.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Ad Sensum Agreement and Distributive Readings

Spanish, as well as other Romances languages (like Rumanian), exhibits an apparently optional agreement in number between subject and verb when the subject is headed by a collective noun:

(1) Un grupo de niños cantó en el concierto
(2) Un grupo de niños cantaron en el concierto

This situation is restricted to this type of nouns, and only happens if the collective noun is in singular. If the noun is in plural, the agreement is mandatory:

(3) Dos grupos de niños cantaron en el concierto

It is interesting that, as has been observed, when the singular collective noun triggers plural in the verb, a distributive reading is forced:

(4) Un equipo de nadadores recibieron una medalla
(5) Un equipo de nadadores recibió una medalla

So, (4) means that each of the members of a swimming team received a medal, whereas (5) means that there was only one medal for the whole team. Notice further that if the prepositional phrase (with a plural noun) is not present, the disagreement is not possible:

(6) * Un equipo ganaron una medalla

This means that this prepositional phrase (and the plural noun) is the trigger for the distributive reading. It is tempting to conclude that it is responsible for the agreement too. However, and this is an even more interesting data (although less known), some time others phrases can trigger the distributive reading too:

(7) Pasan uno a uno el convoy de la guerra

In (7), the phrase uno a uno (‘one by one’) triggers a distributive reading over el convoy de la guerra (‘war convoy’), as expected, the verb is in plural; however, convoy is singular, and there is no prepositional phrase with plural noun.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Free relatives with null head

Spanish has a type of free relatives (that is, relative clauses without antecedent) that clearly shows that these structures should be analyzed as containing a null head:

(1) Compró el _ que le recomendaste
(2) Trajo la _ que le pediste

In these cases, the relative particle (que ‘that’) has a determiner. Notice that the head can be reconstructed:

(3) Compró el auto que le recomendaste
(4) Trajo la carta que le pediste

In addition, it is possible to have other nominal constructions with a null head. In these cases, the determiner also must be present:

(5) El _ invisible

Even the ‘neutral’ determiner lo can be used in free relatives:

(6) Dile lo _ que quieras

This is the same determiner that we use in the so called “nominal adjectives” (which are used to express an abstract concept):

(7) Lo _ invisible

This suggests that, contrary to some proposals that conceive free relatives as bare CPs, in these constructions we have a structure like (8), that is, with a null head:

(8) [DP DET [NP __ [CP que…. ] ] ]

Monday, February 20, 2006

Left Conjunct Agreement

It is well known that Spanish, as many other languages (including English), displays Left Conjunct Agreement (LCA), that is, under certain circumstances, the verb agrees with the left member of a coordinated subject:

(1) Estaba César y su ejército en la orilla opuesta del río

LCA is more common in postverbal subjects, and when at least one of the conjuncts has low referentiality (in (1) for instance, César is a unique individual, but not su ejército “his army”). It cannot happen when both conjuncts have high referentiality:

(2) * Estaba César y Pompeyo en la orilla opuesta del río

It is less known, however, that this phenomenon is not limited to verb-subject agreement. Participles are also subject to LCA:

(3) Sabe varios idiomas, incluido el inglés y el francés

It is worth noticing that the Spanish prescriptive discourse usually condemns the LCA (in both cases).

Monday, December 19, 2005

An evidentiality suffix in Spanish

It is well known that many languages convey evidentiality (the modality that expresses the speaker's attitude toward the evidence for his/her statement) by using a set of suffixes or particles. Let me put an example that does not belong to Spanish. Hidatsa (a native-american language from Missouri) has a “reportative” particle to express that the speaker was given the information by someone else, but s/he does not have sufficient evidence (it is a rumor, let’s say):

wacéo wíira rackí-heó rahe
man piepe carried REPORTATIVE
“The man carried the pipe, they say”
[from Palmer 2001 Mood and Modality: 42]

Interestingly, in Spanish, the conditional suffix -ría can play this role. It is the so called Conditional de Rumor:

(2) Brittney Spears ya estaría embarazada
[literally: Brittney Spears would be pregnant already]

Notice that the suffix -ría can be a normal conditional suffix too:

(3) Brittney Spears ya estaría embarazada si se hubiera casado con su amigo

Of course, like English, Spanish has several other means to mark the evidentiality (mainly, adverbs). What is interesting in this case is that also a suffix can do this job. Sentences like (2), however, are banned by the prescriptive discourse, although they are very common, even in standard speech (especially in the press).