Saturday, April 4, 2009

Person hierarchy in English?

Arnold Zwicky wrote today about agreement with disjunctive subjects, i.e., clauses in which the subject is separated by an operator such as 'or' or 'nor'. He gives examples such as Neither Barbara nor I {am, is, are} able to... and If you or I {am, are} here.... This phenomenon is one that most if not all people struggle with, and I believe it provides solid evidence against the model of the brain as a computer which simply spits out answers based on some strictly written grammar code.

There are several competing motivations here. In the former example, one of these for many people is to say things that are prescriptively correct. This would be, because prescriptively, 'neither' is the "subject" of the sentence. Of course, most of us also want the verb to agree with the most immediate NP, in this case, 'I'. Yet Neither Barbara nor I am... definitely sounds strange, because 'am' doesn't encompass Barbara. I think I would probably choose 'are', on the basis that this particular sentence is semantically equivalent to something like We are unable to..., i.e., the subject is in some underlying way a 1st person plural. On the other hand, it is difficult to apply this kind of view to the second example. I wouldn't want to say 'am' for the same reason as above, but I also wouldn't want to say 'are' because of the conflict with the 1st person pronoun 'I', and the fact that because of the disjunct the subject is clearly singular.

I think that in some ways this can be explained by some resort to a person hierarchy in English. We typically want 1st person pronouns to come second, as in Jim and I went to the store as opposed to ?I and Jim went to the store. But this hierarchy creates problems because of the above examples, where putting 'I' first would probably result in a more natural sentence (from a verb agreement standpoint).


Anonymous said...

" provides solid evidence against the model of the brain as a computer which simply spits out answers based on some strictly written grammar code."

I don't think any linguist subscribes to that model.

Ryan said...

@Previous commenter: So one might think. But then one reads some of the more implausible UG claims made by Chomsky, and one thinks again.

@op: I am skeptical of the existence of a syntactic person hierarchy in English. Consider this evidence:

(1) *"I and Jim went to the store" may be ungrammatical, but I'd be a millionaire if I had a dime for every time I heard someone say "Me and Jim went to the store" (and a billionaire if I had another dime for every time such an utterance was immediately prescriptively corrected by someone's mom).
(2) There doesn't seem to be any natural preference for first person pronouns coming second in object position. "Barbara took over for {me and Jim, Jim and me}" both seem acceptable, though I admit I am not certain as to whether one or the other is prescriptively correct. There is however also the frequent hypercorrection "Barbara took over for Jim and I" motivated by (1). It is possible (and very interesting) that through hypercorrection a pronoun hierarchy may be in the process of emerging.

I find your semantic interpretation more likely: "If [you or I] are..." is semantically plural and equivalent to "If we are...", so an "are" is produced to agree with subject "we". Same thing could apply to "Neither Barbara nor I {is, are} able to…", but in this example "is" is also a candidate, who draws on support from (a) the singularity of "Neither" and (b) conformity with grammatical prescription. And you also even mention "am" as a candidate, though because he sounds so odd he's more like a third party candidate that won't win. In any case this is all still really cool though, as I've always been a proponent/fan of stochastic or construction grammars where more than one form can be possible and competition between forms exists before a "surface form" is produced, and this is a great bit of evidence for their superiority over deterministic/generative/brain-as-a-computer models