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Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Clever New Syntactic Tool

In a recent post I adverted to some of the new experimental syntax tools honed by Jon Sprouse for investigating grammatical structure.  Here's another very clever use of current technology that Matt Wagers thunk up. I will feed you a teaser and leave a URL. It's very clever and even theoretically suggestive. Here's the intro and here the URL:


"... aircraft carriers where planes land on them"

Resumptive pronouns and the not-quite-verbatim memory of Twitter users

Matt Wagers
updated 28 October, 2012
In the 3rd Presidential Debate (Oct 22, 2012), one of President Obama's most talked about retorts to Governor Romney was the following:
Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.
Notably (to a linguist), Obama appeared to link two clauses via a resumptive pronoun. The two clauses are in bold, the resumptive underlined. Resumptive pronouns are a grammatical device found in many languages of the world (1), but they are reliably not judged as acceptable in English (2; despite seemingly being often produced).
A look at how Twitter users reported Obama's zinger provides some insight into how sentences containing resumptives are encoded. Although many users might copy and paste the text from a transcript, others will simply try to reproduce what they heard from memory.Verbatim memory is difficult to achieve in most contexts, since memory for exact form appears to be rather labile. Indeed, when people do reproduce exact form, it appears they mostly don't rely on any surface representation (i.e., anything like a 'mental transcript'); instead speakers reformulate based on the gist of what was heard and the recently activated lexical items (3). In other words, recollection of linguistic form from memory involves some reformulation of the underlying message. Thus seeing how ungrammatical sentences are repeated can give us insight into their underlying representation.

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