What did she know?

One of the well-known (but slightly lesser-studied) varieties of ellipsis (in English) is called “null complementation.” It’s involved in understanding sentences like these:

  • Do you understand? (what I’ve been saying)
  • I have to refuse. (to do what you asked me to do)
  • Wow, your wristwatch is really similar! (to that other watch we’ve been talking about)

Certain verbs allow this, and others don’t. Famously (is that the right word?), try does but attempt does not: Just try, it won’t hurt! is okay, but *_Just attempt! is out. (Exception: fine print in advertisements that say: do not attempt). Know also allows it. (Yes, yes, I know).

Okay, so here’s the story. I was on the bus the other day and there were two people who seemed to be friends nearby. The driver was turning the corner, but stopped to let people pass. Apparently he was allowing too many people to pass, and one of the friends said, “Come on, go, go!” (softly, as though to the driver but actually for the benefit of her friend; sort of a strange self-directed version of a pseudo-imperative meant for the benefit of a hearer). Then the other friend said,

I know!

The puzzle: what did she know?

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Picking the wrong antecedent

Overheard on the bus today, a conversation between two graduate students, one of whom (A) previously lived in Mexico.

A: a lot of people get in cabs and never get out

B: oh

A: yeah there’s a lot of kidnapping

A: that seems scary

A: yeah, being kidnapped can be scary [or did she say “kidnapping can be scary”]

A: i mean, i (still) did a lot

B: you got kidnapped?!

A: no, I took taxis

I have to admit, this one took me for a loop. I had no idea what A meant when she said, “I still did a lot.” I thought that the only possible thing she could have meant was that she kidnapped people, but that’s ridiculous. I found it interesting that B felt it was possible that A meant she got kidnapped, even though that’s not technically possible given what verb phrase ellipsis is supposed to do. It is, of course somehow the most sensible solution semantically…assuming, of course, that you’ve forgotten about taking taxis, or considered it too far back to be a plausible antecedent. If, on the other hand, you’ve been the topic-setter for the past dozen or more turns (as A was) then it all makes sense.

I hereby request that you be direct

At a dinner I was at recently, one participant remarked that a roommate would continually make requests indirectly, e.g. “Do you think you’ll do the dishes?” “I wonder if we should do some cleaning this weekend.” [language changed to protect the innocent]. She expressed some frustration with that sort of talk, wishing that the roommate would “be direct” and just say

Can you please do the dishes?

In case anyone was wondering if, maybe, somehow, can you X was still only indirectly a request.

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