Saturday August 12, 2006

WTF on WTC

In an article on Slate about Oliver Stone's movie World Trade Center, Rebecca Liss wrote the following sentence:

He never imagined that he would be involved in one of the few and most memorable rescues of Sept. 11.

I know what she means, but I really want to slap a star on that sentence.  Something about the coordination is odd, but I'm not sure what.

Over on Language Log they've been referring to constructions like this as "WTF coordinations", which is a pretty good description of my reaction to Liss's sentence.  If we unroll it, though, the meaning of the sentence is perfectly clear:

He never imagined that he would be involved in one of the few rescues of Sept. 11 and one of the most memorable rescues of Sept. 11.

So what's wrong with the original version?  The naive (and wrong, but never mind that) analysis of coordination in languages like English is that you can coordinate items of similar grammatical category.  It's odd, then, that the original sentence should sound so odd given that it appears to have coordination between few and most memorable, which are very similar in category, if perhaps not identical—I don't have copy of the Cambridge Grammar at hand, but few has to do with the number of rescues while most memorable is a superlative, so they're not precisely parallel.  They both modify the same noun phrase, though, and both can be coordinated in other contexts (both examples found in the wild using Google):

...TV's best and most memorable love triangles...
...you can focus on the few and rare instances...

So what's going on?  I think it might be that there is a rule of degree accord in English coordinations—that is, comparatives want to go with comparatives and superlatives with superlatives.  Consider:

...the author's early and good novel...
...the author's earlier and better novel...
...the author's earliest and best novel...

* ...the author's early and better novel...
* ...the author's early and best novel...
* ...the author's earlier and good novel...
* ...the author's earlier and best novel...
* ...the author's earliest and good novel...
* ...the author's earliest and better novel...

Are your acceptibility judgments the same?  Some of the starred examples could be rescued, at least in writing, by putting parentheses around the and X portion, but I think that's just the kind of clever wordplay you can get away with in writing but not in speech.

(I'm sure this isn't a novel insight, by the way, but it's been a while since I've posted and I needed a break from The Phonesthemes Paper That Would Not Die.)

[Now playing: "Electioneering" by Radiohead]

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Comments

I think the problem is that all of the rescues of 9/11 are among the few, including the less-memorable ones. "The few and most memorable" is a category that doesn't exist, so nothing can be a member of it.

Posted by: David Moles at Aug 13, 2006 3:56:59 AM

Your novel examples seem about right, but I think the Sept. 11 sentence has a more serious problem than the starred versions there. David's analysis comes about as close to defining it as I can. "Few" and "most memorable" don't stand in the same relation to "one of".

Posted by: Tim May at Aug 13, 2006 7:28:23 AM

Somehow, I'm inclined to agree with Tim. In a strange way I can't describe or justify, "one of the [A-est] [N] [comparison set]" is some kind of construction, potentially with semantics that doesn't like other certain types of adjectives like "few." But let's try some other tests:

[?] Several of the few and most memorable rescues in the disaster....
[?] Several of the few and more memorable rescues in the disaster....
[?] Of the few and more/most memorable rescues in the disaster, one/some/many/three were...

Also, some degree-mismatching:

[?] If you were rich and taller, would you...
[?] Not only is she rich and smartest in her class, but...

(for me, the acceptabilities are [mer?], [good], [yuck], [mer?/yuck], [good], [good])
(this probably doesn't lead to any sort of better or easy-to-understand explanation, though...)

Posted by: Russell at Aug 13, 2006 11:03:15 AM

I think that the main problem is that "few" here describes all of the rescues, while "most memorable" has a different function -- it specifies which of the many rescues are being talked about.

* One of the few and most memorable
* One of the miraculous and most memorable
* One of the few and noisest
One of the noisiest and most memorable
One of the few and miraculous

I also wonder whether maybe "few" is analogous to "dozen" in "One of the dozen rescues...", which would make it impossible to mix with anything, at least with an "and"...

* One of the dozen and miraculous
One of the dozen miraculous

Posted by: Matt at Aug 13, 2006 10:20:46 PM

Er, that really should have said "... specifies which of the FEW rescues are ...", shouldn't it? Sorry.

Posted by: Matt at Aug 13, 2006 10:23:13 PM

My first reaction was that 'few' is a determiner so can't be coordinated with an AdjP. Then on seeing the 'the' in 'the few' thought perhaps it is an Adj. But the CGEL confirms that 'the few' is a Det (or DetP?). So that coordination is broken just on that.

But you're also right that all the mismatched Adj degree coordinations are ungrammatical (except with special pausing for emphasis).

And finally Matt is right in pointing out a number mismatch:

One of the few rescues that were successful...
One of the most memorable rescues that was successful...

Despite the same syntactic form, the percolation of number up to the top NP is different. So altogether a most malformed sentence.

Posted by: nw at Aug 13, 2006 11:45:14 PM

David seems to have it right.

Any rescue during 9/11 must seem memorable.

What would be a un-memorable rescue?

Did a fellow sit reading his newspaper in the KrispyKreme around the corner...and remain sitting there well after both airplanes had struck...and was jerked from his perch only at the last moment by a stray dog who had wound his leash around the guy's leg? And he exited in time to not be scratched nor even dusted by debris?

However, many people would see this type of serendipitous rescue to be memorable indeed.

So what is an unmemorable rescue?

If a heroic rescue is memorable and a non-heroic rescue is memorable, then all rescues are memorable equally, although they differ as to those characteristics by which we judge them worthy of memory.


Posted by: montag at Sep 12, 2006 2:41:41 AM