Tuesday, October 23, 2007

VP Deletion

So, here's the first post. If this actually gets a lot of readers I may invest in an actual domain/web site, but as for now I thought I'd start on a free blogging site. I'd love to have other contributors, so if you're a fellow linguist let me know if you'd like to contribute. Really I'd like to expand this into a web site dedicated to teaching and learning linguistics, so if there's anything you as the reader don't understand or would like to know more about, let me know so I can post about it. Okay, on to the post.

A commercial last night caught my attention, one I had seen many times before but had never really paid attention to. It's a commercial for a birth control pill that promises shorter periods, and involves two girls texting each other. One says, "You mean I could have been at the beach?" The other replies, "You could." Not to say that I would process this as ill-formed, but it's definitely marked in my grammar. I would definitely say "you could have" in this context. The process at work here is of course VP deletion, whereby a verb phrase is deleted when it can be filled in through contextual clues, e.g., "You could (have been at the beach)."

Now, I'm not an expert on syntax, but as of now I've been taught that the modal verb occupies the I node, and each auxiliary constitutes the head of its own VP node, i.e., I' --> I (modal) VP, VP --> V (aux) VP, VP --> V' --> etc. In this case "could" would be the ultimate constituent in the I node, "have" would be the auxiliary in the V node of that first VP, and "been at the beach" would be the second VP. (In case it isn't clear from my vague notation, the first and second instances of VP are the same VP, and the third and fourth instances of VP are the same VP, i.e., the first of each pair shows how it is dominated, the second of each pair shows what it in turn dominates. If this was totally unclear in the future I can try to make illustrations for syntax trees.)

So we have two VP's, the first of which dominates the second: the first VP is "have been at the beach," while the second is just "been at the beach." Obviously it is this first, superior VP that the girl in the commercial is deleting. "You could (have been at the beach)." My personal grammar allows that as being well-formed, but would generate "You could have (been at the beach)." So it seems my grammar has a preference for deleting the lowest VP possible. This works for longer and longer VP chains as well. For instance, in response to "I must have been sleeping when you called," I would probably say "You must have been." Again the lowest VP is deleted, though I would also accept and probably say from time to time "You must have" or "You must." Though it makes sense, I had never thought about the fact that VP deletion can target any VP, which is especially striking when you have these chains of auxiliaries creating chains of VP's.

What about your grammar? Can you select any VP, or do you have to pick the highest, or lowest? For those who aren't syntax-minded, this translates to, would you say "you must," "you must have," or "you must have been" in response to the statement "I must have been sleeping"? My guess is that most if not all people would recognize all three as well-formed, but which do you prefer?

8 comments:

Alex said...

Modals are generally pretty slippery, especially when used by bikini-wearing beach chicks. A limey would likely have said, "You could have been" or "you could have done," as modals in that dialect of English have to be followed by a verb, generally a form of "to do."

On the other hand, in order to save on SMS charges, the girls may well have wanted to save space -- but that would raise the question of why the second girl didn't resort to the far more effective "yes" or its barbaric IM equivalent, "ya."

Personally, I am not a big fan of text-message discussions of menses, but I'm rather old-fashioned on that front.

Lee said...

personally, i don't think i would ever completely delete a phrase initiated by "have". perhaps it is prescriptive grammar showing through, but to me could have is one unit. maybe this is because i almost always contract have. therefore i probably would answer that text message with "you could've."

although, i wouldn't say i delete the lowest VP. i would say "i must've" in response to "i must have been sleeping when you called."

interesting tangent: i know i do it, and i haven't actively looked for it, but i haven't seen it anywhere else: i double contract. for instance, to negate "you could've" it would become "you couldn't've", or "he would have known" is "he'd've known" (actually, i can imagine other people saying this one. but i've never noticed it with the negation + have in anyone else.)

do you think contraction alters the morphological process these morphemes undergo?

Dan said...

I usually find myself deleting the lowest VP as well, and I'm also a big fan of the double contraction. I especially like the negative w/c/sh-ouldn't've.

Alexandra said...

How does it know my name?

Micah said...

From what I can tell, I would most likely delete the lowest VP as well. As far as double contraction goes, I definitely do that, and it doesn't really seem that out of place to me.

Anonymous said...

So we have two VP's... How could a linguist make such a mistake? I'm sure you mean "we have two VPs" and not VP's...

linguistlessons said...

I usually unconsciously follow MLA format, which is to use an apostrophe when pluralizing acronyms.

Michaela said...

I would use "you must have" or "i must have"