Aug. 22nd, 2012

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The unaccusative alternation

When I was TAing for an undergraduate syntax class a couple of years ago, I was extremely struck by the analysis presented by the professor for a particular set of English verbs. The behavior of interest looks something like this.

1 a. I boiled the water (into vapor).
b. The water boiled (into vapor).

2. a. I stretched the rope (taut).
b. The rope stretched (taut).

3. a. I broke the glass (into little tiny pieces).
b. The glass broke (into little tiny pieces).

I'm not going to go into the analysis of how this set of data is analyzed in concert with sentences like "I worked myself into a frenzy" and "I fainted into a heap on the floor," in part because it's not particularly interesting into non-linguists, and in part because the only reason I like the analysis is that it works so tidily within a narrow theoretically framework that I don't necessarily subscribe to. It's gorgeous, but I don't really believe it. Anyway, there's a whole slew of these verbs: boil, melt, break, crack, shatter, roll, spill, freeze, open, close, sink, increase, decrease, and lots more. The basic property that characterizes this class (sometimes called alternating unaccusatives) is that they can be used both transitively, as in (1a), (2a), and (3a), or intransitively, where the object of the transitive clause becomes the subject of the intransitive (as in (1b), (2b), (3b)). Now, on the basis of this property, one might want to include the verb grow in this class, because of data like the following:

4. a. I grow tomatoes.
b. The tomato grew.

If that is the case, though, why do I despise sentences like the following?

5. We are growing our business/customer base/market share . . .

I hate that use of grow. It's not just the transitive use that I despise, which might suggest that I simply don't include grow in the class of alternative unaccusatives in my ideolect. I do like transitive grow. Sentence (4a) is fine. So what's different about growing tomatoes and growing businesses? It's not simply an aversion to corporate jargon. I don't hate it the way I find sentences "Make sure you liaise with Susan so we can dialogue about how our marketing campaign is impacting the consumer base" stylistically ugly. It's not stylistics. It sounds wrong. It sounds ungrammatical. It sounds like (to bring out the big guns) a subcategorization violation, an argument structure violation. It's as bad to me as something like I confessed God my sins instead of I confessed my sins to God. But I simply can't figure out what's wrong with it. It's probably semantic, but what semantic category would include anything organic and exclude something organizational, but only for the verb grow? There's no such split in other alternating unaccusatives. It's equally good (syntactically) to say I'm going to shatter our customer base and I'm going to shatter this tomato. What's up with grow?

Split infinitives
Some stodgy grammarians hold to the claim that it's somehow ugly to split infinitives in English, along the lines of (6-9)a, and that modifiers should appear somewhere else, as in (6-9)b.

6a. My mission is to stodgily prescribe grammar rules.
b. My mission is stodgily to prescribe grammar rules.

7a. I expect the radicals to vehemently object to my tax proposal.
b. I expect the radicals vehemently to object to my tax proposal.

8a. I want to not get involved in this argument.
b. I want not to get involved in this argument.

9a. I told him to never do that again.
b. I told him never to do that again.

This is one of those old-fashioned rules that I try to follow just in case whenever it sounds okay, but which I freely ignore whenever there's the slightest hint of stodginess. Certainly in (6)-(7) I think that the split infinitive versions are better than the non-split ones, while in (8) and especially (9) the unsplit version is as good as or better than the split version . However, they really do mean the same thing. The difference is purely stylistic, rather than semantic.

I recently, however, came across an example where avoiding splitting the infinitive changed the meaning so much that I completely misunderstood the utterance. This came from Dickens's Little Dorrit, where the narrator is describing the Circumlocution Office. This government office has perfected the art of "how not to do it." To me, "how not to do it" means "the manner in which this thing should never be done, because that manner is utterly wrong." For example, "how not to stitch samplers" would involve sledgehammers and jaguars, and "how not to cook dinner" would involve dill. Under this reading, the Circumlocution Office has perfect the art of doing things wrong.

As it turns out, Dickens meant an entirely different meaning. He meant "how to avoid doing something." He meant that the Circumlocution Office is where any activity goes to be abandoned. For me, though, this second meaning is best expressed by "how to not do it," with the split infinitive. The meaning contrast is really stark. "How not to do it" could perhaps have the meaning that Dickens intended (avoiding action) if I turn my head and squint, but it's definitely dispreferred, and "how to not do it" could never, ever have the meaning of demonstrating the wrong method of accomplishing the action. It can only have the avoidance meaning.

I don't have any point to make. I simply was struck by the profound difference splitting or not splitting an infinitive makes in this case with respect not to style, but to meaning.

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