zero vs. "that" relatives

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Tue Dec 30 00:34:25 UTC 2008

All true, from your view of dialect. But WRT standard English, I'm an
*observer* and not a speaker. My annoying experience throughout
approximately six decades of life speaking and listening is that the
presence of a BE speaker has no effect upon English as Northern white
people choose to speak it, even when I have attempted to inject my
intuitions into a conversation. At M.I.T., white students didn't give
a second's thought to "correcting" my intuitions _on the spot_ when I
had been asked for them by a fellow-student who was not to be a native
speaker of English. It used to ass me to death. Damn! You'd think that
at least they'd have waited till later, taken the foreign students
aside and explained to them, outside of my presence, that the sE
intuitions of the colored are untrustworthy by definition, since those
people know the standard dialect only from books and not from
immersion in some variety of it from birth.

OTOH, the same white colleagues have no problem accepting my
intuitions WRT sE when they are writing their own syntax papers.

I wonder why it is that it's white people that are known for going
postal and not black people.

As long as the average white linguist displays this
hopefully-unconscious attitude of superiority of speech habits, it
will *never* be the case that there will never be an observer effect
when a white, Northern linguist deals with speakers of other dialects,
regardless of the race of the non-standard speaker. Writing and saying
that the fact that a given dialect is standard only through mere
historical accident is not the same as believing it.

FWIW, it's my experience that Southern speakers, regardless of race,
tend to give up their attempts to speak "properly," when they speak to
black people. I.e., a friend of mine, a native of Cambridge, MA, whose
father was also a native of Cambridge, but whose mother was from some
North Carolina backwater, assured me that her mother didn't speak her
native Southern dialect *except* when I was present, even though I,
being the only black person on the set, was using my best attempt at
Northern sE and studiously avoiding any use of blackisms and

All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
-Mark Twain

On Fri, Dec 26, 2008 at 11:21 PM, Paul Johnston <paul.johnston at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Paul Johnston <paul.johnston at WMICH.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: 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
>> -----------------------
>> 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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