Saturday, November 21, 2009

Copula contraction

I ran across an interesting instance of contraction on the Moviefone web site a while back, in the headline of a feature about some group of 80's stars or another: "Where They're Now". I found this interesting because you can't do this in English. Generally speaking, you can contract a copula onto the subject in English in an existential construction ("He is a good guitarist", "She is at the hospital") or when be is acting as an auxiliary verb ("They are going to the store"). This is reflected by a google search of "where they're now", which turns up millions of examples of constructions like "where they're now inside the city", but none of the Moviefone type.

This seems to be a function of wh-movement in this case. Note that the corresponding declarative "they are __ now" is perfectly happy to contract to "they're __ now". So why can't we do it after wh-movement? After all, we can say "they're happy" and "where they're happy". In all likelihood, this isn't a syntactic issue, but a phonological one, since contraction doesn't affect the syntactic status of the verb, only the phonological status. In a phrase like "He is a good guitarist", "is" is unstressed. Out of the blue, I have primary stress on "guiTARist", and secondary stress probably on "good". In "where they are now", on the other hand, "are" received some kind of secondary stress. I place primary stress on "now", but "where" and "are" both received secondary stress. It's for this reason that we (nominally) can't contract the copula onto the subject, because we can't get rid of secondary stress in that fashion. When there isn't stress on the copula, it can contract (or delete in ICE). I'm not sure if the Moviefone headline was written by a non-native speaker or just an overly efficient copy editor, but it's not well-formed in English, at least in my dialect.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't really see why it can't be a syntactic issue. There seems to be a difference between where they are now and where they are happy. happy is the complement of the copula, forming some kind of block with are, making the contraction possible, while now is an adverbial adjunct.
I think English grammar says an auxiliary can only be contracted when followed by a lexical verb, e.g., You said she hadn't left, but I think she has by now / *she's by now. It seems to be the same for the copula be and its complement.

Anonymous said...

I don't really see why it can't be a syntactic issue. There seems to be a difference between where they are now and where they are happy. happy is the complement of the copula, forming some kind of block with are, making the contraction possible, while now is an adverbial adjunct.
I think English grammar says an auxiliary can only be contracted when followed by a lexical verb, e.g., You said she hadn't left, but I think she has by now / *she's by now. It seems to be the same for the copula be and its complement.

outerhoard said...

Here's what I think after five minutes of messing around.

Firstly, I don't agree that there's secondary stress on "are"; it's there optionally, but I find the most natural way to say it is with primary stress on "now" and secondary stress on "where" only.

However ...

We can remove the adjunct "now", leaving the simpler phrase "where they are" without changing its structure. Stress (primary stress, in fact) now falls on the word "are", which might well explain why we can't contract it to "where they're".

So I suggest that if a given phrase cannot be contracted when it appears in isolation (because of stress) then the same phrase cannot be contracted when it's followed by an adjunct, even if the stress pattern is no longer a barrier. In summary, "where they are now" cannot be contracted because "where they are" cannot be contracted.