open letter to Andrea Lunsford

Mark A. Mandel mamandel at UNAGI.CIS.UPENN.EDU
Fri Jun 13 00:08:02 UTC 2003

An excellent piece, Arnold! Clear, well written and researched, and

A note on the backtracking argument, just before the para starting with
"To recap": If you were backtracking in the "Mary's father" sentence to
find the antecedent, it's true that you'd hit NP(Mary's father)  and
NP(Mary) at the same time, if you define "hit the NP" as "backtrack far
enough to have backtracked over the entire NP".

But (1) the backtracking reaches "Mary's father", from the right, before
reaching "Mary"; and (2) "father" is the head of its NP, as "Mary" is of
its own. Someone using the backtracking argument could, IMHO, say with
justification that "Mary's father" is closer to the pronoun than "Mary"

Of course, as you say, people don't normally backtrack. In my own
experience, when I backtrack for an antecedent it's either because my
attention has wandered or because the author has hidden it in the
undergrowth or lost it altogether, in which case there's much more to
complain about than a possessive or otherwise modifying antecedent. But
if you intend to take this piece further, as I hope you will, I suggest
that you recognize this interpretation of the (putative) backtracker's
steps. It takes nothing away from your reasoning, and it deprives any
crazed proscription addict of a grip on your lapel.

-- Mark A. Mandel
   Linguistic Data Consortium, University of Pennsylvania

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