Coach Paterno and the syntactic blind alley

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Nov 10 15:03:36 UTC 2011

…or is there another term for these?  Geoff Nunberg and I were just chatting about some of these cases--what's the past tense of "forgo" (well, that one's really a *morphological* blind alley), how do you get out of binds like

one of my friend's father(s)
either she or I am/is/are going

?--when I was reminded of one of my favorite examples this morning by yet another discussion of the denouement of Joe Paterno's career at Penn State.  Paterno was described by Mike Greenberg on Mike & Mike (ESPN radio) as:

"one of the most, if not THE most, legendary coaches of all time"

Doesn't quite work, of course, and the singular agreement option is even worse:

"one of the most, if not THE most legendary coach of all time"

The fact that there are contexts in which the problem can be finessed--

"one of the most, if not THE most, legendary sheep in the history of our barnyard"

--doesn't mean it's not a problem in the non-sheepish (and non-fishy) contexts in which it *can't* be finessed, any more than the alternative of saying "the father of one of my friends" dispels the issue posed by "one of my friends' father/fathers"

Is there a standard term for these blind-alley/no-exit situations?  Have these been covered on Language Log?  (I don't know what to search under, but surely Arnold or Ben will remember if they've been discussed.)


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