determination by the nearest

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun Apr 11 23:12:05 UTC 2004

on friday a grad student sent me the example

    I could (and have) watched people play that game for hours.

(from a friend in e-chat).  i replied that i'd recently started to
collect these from presumably careful writers and speakers.  for
government of verb form, i have

   There are plenty of venues at which Mr. Chirac could, and has,
demonstrated his rapport with Mr. Schröder.
 NYT editorial, “Playing Politics with D-Day”, 1/19/04, p. A20.

i also have two striking examples of verb agreement with the nearest
NP, which is inside a parenthetical modifier:

   “No one, not even CEOs, are resistant to the effects of sleep loss,”
said J. Catesby Ware, professor of Eastern Virginia Medical School and
director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Sentara Norfolk General
  Quoted by McFedries 2004:41.

   Normally in my lab, everything that I write, including academic
emails, are proofread by someone before they are sent out.
 E-mail to AMZ from a distinguished colleague in biology, 3/22/04; and,
yes, this particular message had been proofread by someone on his

but to return to determination of verb form...  the grad student
suggested i do a google search on "could +and have" -- which yielded
over 8k hits (without going into google groups)!  some of these are
irrelevant, of course, but, still, the number is huge.  actually,
"would +and have" netted *over 17k* hits.  even "might +and have" got
about 2k.

so there's a hell of a lot of determination by the nearest going on in
unguarded writing.  *agreement* with the nearest is ridiculously easy
to collect from unscripted speech, though most linguists seem to treat
it as a performance error.  i'd imagine that government by the nearest
is also common in speech, given how incredibly frequent it is in
writing.  i'm tempted to suggest that government by the nearest
conjunct is in fact the *rule* for vernacular english -- which would
explain why it's so hard to teach people to avoid this construction in
formal writing.  (students are puzzled to be told that they have to
replace "could (and have) watched people" by the longer and clunkier
"could watch (and have watched) people".)

arnold (zwicky at

More information about the Ads-l mailing list