abstract for Stanford SemFest 9

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Feb 14 17:17:37 UTC 2008

my abstract, just accepted, for the 2008 Semantics Festival (March 14):

What to blame it on: Diathesis alternations, usage advice,
“confusion”, and pattern extension

The linking between syntactic arguments and participant roles is
complex: some verbs allow alternative expressions for the same
participant roles (give me the book,  give the book to me; spray paint
on the wall, spray the wall with paint), while other verbs will allow
only one of the alternatives, and still others might allow only the
other (Levin 1993).

When an alternative to some existing pattern arises, usage critics are
quick to criticize it: they are antagonistic towards innovations (or
what they perceive to be innovations) in general, but especially to
innovations that introduce what they see as just new ways of saying
old things.  If we already have the (a) variants, why should we also
have the (b) variants?
   (1a) blame SOURCE (for CONSEQUENCE)
   (1b) blame CONSEQUENCE on SOURCE?
   (2b) rid SOMETHING from LOCATION?
   (3a) confuse ORIGINAL with REPLICA
   (3b) confuse REPLICA for ORIGINAL?
   (4a) substitute NEW (for OLD)
   (4b) substitute OLD (with/by NEW)?

“Why do these things happen?”, the usage critics ask.  And the critics
answer: because people “confuse” the correct usage with other related
usages – they combine, or blend, different constructions.

For BLAME, for example, the claim is (Funk & Wagnalls (1915)) that
people combine the correct (1a) with the related
   (1c) lay/put/place (the) blame on SOURCE (for CONSEQUENCE)
For SUBSTITUTE, the claim is that people combine the correct (4a) with
the related
   (4c) replace OLD (with/by NEW).

Now, there is certainly a sense in which the innovative variants have
bits of stuff taken from two (or more) different places in English
syntax.  And it’s possible that occasionally such an innovation
results from true syntactic blending, in which alternative
formulations of the same content compete with one another in
production, with the result that the actually produced expression has
parts of both.  But in general, if the innovation is to be seen as a
combination of two things, the combination is at a higher level, the
level of patterns – constructions – not specific utterances-in-planning.

But I’m inclined to see even this pattern-combination account as
gratuitously complex, given that extension of patterns to new items
that have appropriate semantics is so common, as when DONATE is
extended to the double-NP dative variant.

Why should people do this?  Aren’t these just different ways of saying
the same thing?  Maybe yes, maybe no, but linguists are here to tell
the usage critics that when you have two non-subject arguments for a
V, it’s really useful to have alternative syntactic argument
structures for them: whichever one serves as direct object is focussed
on; whichever one comes first is more likely to be discourse-topical;
and the different argument structures provide ways to put short before
long (avoiding long things first, and, especially, short things last).

The details are different in each case, but in all of them we see
speakers actively (though tacitly) re-shaping the materials of their
language so as to increase the expressive capacity available to them –
not just balling things up.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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