zero vs. "that" relatives

ronbutters at AOL.COM ronbutters at AOL.COM
Sat Dec 27 14:15:01 UTC 2008

I agree with everything (that) Paul says here, but I would add that [sic] the human drive for invariance in speech is as fundamental as the drive for variation. They both stem from our social instinct to fit in, either to be right (variation) or not to be wrong (invariance). Schools and parents are powerful, but peer pressure is even stronger.
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-----Original Message-----
From: Paul Johnston <paul.johnston at WMICH.EDU>

Date:         Fri, 26 Dec 2008 23:21:56
Subject:      Re: [ADS-L] zero vs. "that" relatives

Arnold & everyone,

About perceptions vs, reality where this type of variation is
concerned, I couldn't agree with you more.  Having worked in the
variationist model for thirty years, I can remember countless times
where I spotted a certain salient variant of a vbriable that I didn't
expect, or was radically different from my own or other Standard
systems, and when I finally counted the numbers up, it turned out to
be a minor, sometimes even sporadic, variant--just one that stuck out
in MY reckoning.  And informants would have the same problem, too.  I
can remember looking at medial /t/-preglottalization and replacement
by glottal stop in Wooler, Northumberland, a place where, when I did
the study, this type of glottalization was actually pretty rare.  To
an American, those {?t]'s really stick out, and I heard a few of
them.  I expected to see the normal distribution of a vernacular
variant, more men than women, more working class than middle/upper
class, all the things early Labovian studies showed.  And my
informants seemed to agree wity that, too.  One teacher, locally born
and bred, even commented on this variant.  Well, first, no group used
it more than 15% of the time.  Second, every class and gender group
used it.  But they sure avoided it in formal speech!! My explanation,
in 1970's terms, was that since it's established in NEWCASTLE
vernacular, and everybody there knows what Geordie sounds like (in
general) and what the use of Geordie vernacular variants means
socially, they still respond to it as IF it were their own
vernacular, and as IF it were common.  The perceptions don't match
reality. (And yes, it's more complex than I thought- I hadn't known
that [?] varies differently from [?t], and wasn't really looking at
all the phonological environmental constraints).

  And that's phonology.  Perceptions as to syntactic variation can be
even thornier, since the notion of Standard vs, non-Standard is so
knocked into us in our schooling, and sometimes, by our families.
When you add complex constraints as you describe for 0 vs. that into
the mix, it's a wonder how we can make any intelligent statements at
all about the distribution of these features without really "doing
the math" and doing a full study of the phenomenon.  Remember, too,
how long it took sociolinguistds who came up through the Labovian
model to find a way to elicit syntactic variants in a way that would
be pretty close to what happens without an observer.

Paul Johnston
On Dec 26, 2008, at 11:01 AM, Arnold Zwicky wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Arnold Zwicky <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: zero vs. "that" relatives
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> ---------
> On Dec 25, 2008, at 9:33 AM, Wilson Gray wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
>> Subject:      Re: zero vs. "that" relatives
>> ---------------------------------------------------------------------
>> ----------
>> FWIW, I prefer the form with "that." I have the *impression" that
>> "that" is used more often in BE than in sE. I'm willing to admit that
>> I could be wrong about that. Maybe it's just that *I* prefer the
>> "that" forms. But my preference for "that," IMO, is based on my
>> underlying BE grammar. And, given that more sE speakers than BE
>> speakers exist and are more likely than BE speakers to be posting to
>> the Web, IAC, that there should be fewer examples with "that" than
>> without "that" is to be expected.
> i wasn't claiming that i prefer the zero variant (when it's available)
> *in general*, only that i prefer it in the particular construction i
> posted about.
> the facts about "that" vs. zero in relative clauses are very complex.
> to get some appreciation of this complexity, check out some papers by
> florian jaeger and various collaborators, available at:
> (i'll quote from several of these below).
> to start with,
> "For most speakers of Standard American English, only finite,
> restrictive, non pied-piped, non-
> extraposed, non-subject-extracted RCs [NSRCs, for short] can occur
> without optional that."
> and then:
> "A variety of factors seem to influence the choice between that and no
> relativizer in these cases.  These include the length of the NSRC,
> properties of the NSRC subject (such as pronominality, person, and
> number), and the presence of disfluencies nearby."
> "... lexical choices in an NP containing an NSRC can [also] influence
> whether a relativizer is used.  ... particular choices of determiner,
> noun, or prenominal adjective may correlate with exceptionally high or
> exceptionally low rates of relativizers."
> there's more, but this should be enough to show that introspecting
> about your *general* preferences for "that" or zero is just hopeless.
> someone's impressions about their general practices are not any kind
> of evidence about their actual practices (and, even more strongly,
> someone's impressions about the practices of an entire group of
> speakers are not any kind of evidence about this group's actual
> practices).
> everyone's inclination is to think about what they'd do in a few cases
> and then generalize from that.  thinking about specific examples can
> be a useful exercise, but the generalization is utterly worthless
> unless it's tested -- in this case, tested by examining people's
> actual practices (and that's a non-trivial piece of research).  it
> doesn't really make any difference what you *think* you (or other
> people) do.
> it seems likely to me that individual speakers/writers might have
> different overall preferences for "that" vs. zero (all other factors
> being held constant), and that groups might also differ in this way.
> i don't know of any research on the question, though.  i don't even
> know what i do myself.
> arnold
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