Sunday, August 8, 2010


Just north of my apartment there's a popular diner that has their own printed paper placemats. Printed on these are various slogans of the general form "Take time to X, it is the Y of Z", e.g., "Take time to THINK, it is the source of power." Leaving aside the somewhat obvious nonsensicalness of othese platitudes, they use an interesting form of ellipsis that caught my eye (or maybe my language faculty). Perhaps ellipsis isn't even the right word, because what I noticed is the odd reference of "it" in these cases. In "take time to think", "think" is a verb, whereas "it" in the second clause is a noun, and refers to a noun. So how can this be? Pragmatically there's no ambiguity, and I'm sure most people don't even notice that the construction's strange: obviously thinking or thought is what is intended to be "the source of power" (hence the old syllogism "Knowledge is power; power corrupts. Study hard; be evil."). Though it's fairly easy to parse, I can't even remember coming across such a construction before, where a pronoun refers back to something that's technically the wrong category. This seems somehow different from pragmatically instantiated referents, because the referent is in one way overtly present (the verb "think"), but in another way completely absent (there's no gerund or noun "thinking" or "thought").


Luisinho said...

Im my opinion, this is not a pronoun referring to a verb but to a "accomplish the process of VERB" elided construction. I think it is the real process of making the action expressed by the verb that is being used, not the verb as a linguistic unit. As a process, it would be a reality, therefore a noun.

Nice blog! Greetings from Galicia, NorthWestern Iberian Peninsula.

James Crippen said...

Syntactically, “it” could also refer to “time to think”. That’s not infelicitous, but I think there are other semantic reasons for that reading to be excluded. This sentence is an interesting subtlety, and it speaks to the need for semantics to solve certain syntactic puzzles.

Joshua Harwood said...

I always figured that you could refer back to whole sentences or verb phrases with pronouns in English, since we appear to be able to make them nouns.

"Take time to think."
"Taking time to think is the source of power," or, "It is the source of power."

"He got hit in the balls with a hammer!"
"His getting hit in the balls with a hammer has got to hurt!" or, "That's got to hurt!"

Karin Spirn said...

This kind of ellipsis is in fact common enough to warrant an instruction in Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference:

"Implied reference--A pronoun must refer to a specific antecedent, not a word that is implied but not part of the sentence.

Ex: After braiding Ann's hair, Sue decorated them (correction: the braids) with brightly colored ribbons." (Hacker 2009, 191)