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NG33. Coordination before the verb

 This and several following posts look at sentences with coordination, most using explicit and.  Incremental processing, as previously described, readily adapts to sentences with AGENT, THEME or GOAL formed from multiple nouns.  Likewise sentences with coordination of larger units such as THEME + GOAL.  The latter are treated as being formed from coordinated clauses, with or without ellipsis.

The sentences here use ditransitive give but for simplicity in the simple past form gave as it covers both singular and plural and therefore can’t help to identify sentence subject.

Also for simplicity in this post the sentences use A1 A2 A3 for AGENT, T1 T2 T3 for THEME and G1 G2 G3 for GOAL.  Assuming all to be common proper-nouns means all are equally applicable to any syntactic role.

Coordinating two nouns as subject

(111) A2 and A3 gave T1 to G1

NG says that higher level phrases are not formed.  The possibility of an A2 + A3 concept has therefore been dismissed.  Instead a proposition A2 / COORDINATED / A3 is delivered and then A3, but not A2, participates in later propositions.

The arrangement of parent and dependent roles is important.  A2 is dependent in the first junction and brings the full six units of activation.  In the second junction, A3 is parent with and as dependent although the latter brings no activation.  A3 brings its six units only when it is dependent in the junction with gave.  There can be no A2__gave junction because A2 has already acted as dependent.

Coordinating more than two nouns as subject

More than two nouns may be coordinated.

(112) A1 A2 and A3 gave T1 to G1

The process at A1__and is different from anything seen in earlier essays.  The merger needs to do two things: first, deliver the A1 / COORD / A2 proposition; second, leave an incomplete proposition that works exactly as if it were from the first junction in (111).  This approach means that any number of nouns can be coordinated as long as the last-but-one and the last are separated by and.  Having established that principle, following sentences only show coordination of pairs of nouns, not three or more.

The analysis for (112) suggests yet another underlying principle of sentence processing: incomplete propositions are unstable and a pair of them always tries to form at least one complete proposition – even if the propositional role (QUO, REL or SIC) of one of the concepts changes.  The situation in (112) at A1__and can be diagrammed thus:

Coordinating nouns as fronted object

Sentences such as (19) and (15) show fronting of material that would more usually follow the verb.  The fronted material can include coordinated nouns.

(113) G2 and G3 A1 gave T1

(Allocation of A1 to AGENT and G3 to THEME / GOAL is presented rather superficially.  Refer to LS14 for a reminder of how NG treats two nouns before the verb.  The difference here is that the nouns are dependent on the main verb, not on the auxiliary.  Also LS15 explains why T1 consolidates on THEME displacing G3 to GOAL.)

There is no G2__gave junction because G2 has already acted as dependent in G2__and.

Three nouns before the verb are thus unambiguous if and appears between the first and second.  If and appears between the second and third, there are two possible readings.  Assuming that only agent precedes the verb:

(114) A1 A2 and A3 gave T1

This is similar to sentence (7).  But assuming GOAL is also present, as in sentence (14):

(115) G1 A2 and A3 gave T1

If the analysis for (112) is valid, the (114) reading must be the default from automatic sentence-processing.  The (115) reading would only be accessible as a result of cognition preferring the first noun as GOAL through semantic likelihood.  If the speaker’s intention were (115), the hearer would experience a garden-path.

To avoid the GP, (115) would have to be marked prosodically – perhaps with emphasis on the first noun or a slight pause after it.  If that is detectable in phonological processing, the mechanism could be to give the word used in that way a separate lexical-entry, preventing G1__and but still allowing G1__gave.

Agreement between verb and coordinated subject

A crucial strength of NG is the possibility of multiple lexical-entries for a phonological word allowing each entry to have a set of unique pairings with other entries.  Agreement is another aspect of grammar where this comes into play.

(116) A3 is giving T1 to G1

(117) * A2 and A3 is giving T1 to G1

The and__A3 junction selects a particular lexical-entry for A3 which only allows its use as sentence subject in pairings with plural verbs.


It should by now be clear that a plausible analysis of pre-verb coordination can be made using incremental left-to-right processing.  This is true even where both the subject and a fronted object are coordinated, giving rarely heard structures such as:

(118) G2 and G3 A2 and A3 gave T1

Readers may like to try analysing (118).

Then next time we’ll look at coordination of nouns after the verb.


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