What, really, is a word?

I just received the new issue of Language in the mail, and the first paper is a paper I'd read a draft of a while back, and loved. Not only for it's snazzy title ("The Lexicalist Hypothesis: Both Superfluous and Wrong"), but because it gets at the heart of a really interesting issue in linguistics.

The core argument Benjamin Breuning proposes is that if we assume there's such a thing as a "word" and that words are fundamentally different from "phrases" in the grammar (that is, the rules in the mind of a native speaker), then we end up with a lot of difficulty and more assumed grammatical structure that doesn't really give us much. Not only that, but we have to explain some weird observed behavior that this model doesn't predict. This contention, that wordhood is assumed by people who speak European languages, has been an issue for people working on agglutinating languages (like Zulu, Iroquois, etc.) fora while. The genius of his paper is, in part, that he uses all English examples.

So the argument is more-or-less that "word" is a phonological object, and not a grammatical/syntactic object. That is, we manipulate syntactic structure in our minds, but where we put the breaks in speech is really a property of sound and not the structure we are manipulating. Some examples should help clarify.

First, however, I want to point out that we already all know that words (in the traditional sense) themselves often have structure. So for instance, we can look at a word like:

  • unlockable

and know that it has three pieces that carry meaning, un-lock, and -able. One of those can stand on its own, the others can't. AND, interestingly, we can think of them as representing two different structures with two different meanings:

  • [un [ lock-able ] ]  == not able to be locked
  • [ [ un-lock] able ] == able to be unlocked

So what Bruening does is give a ton of examples where the adjective modifying a noun is really an entire phrase:

  • she gave me a don't-you-dare! look

He argues that if you have a model of syntax that assumes the existence of words as atomic pieces, and these words have categories (like "adjective," "noun", "verb") then you can't really account for don't-you-dare! looking both like an imperative and an adjective. 

The paper itself is a lot more complicated, since he gets into some really thorny issues in syntax that are probably not appropriate for a blog post, but the paper itself is delightful and its example sentences are great. 

One of my favorite things in reading linguistics literature is the special schadenfreude I get when reading someone point out that another linguist's example sentences are wrong, and it's even got that, where he points out the grammaticality (contra another linguist's analysis) of utterances like:

  • I have to go re-tuck in my kids.
  • he was re-sworn in as governor.

I have been thinking about this word/phrase distinction for a long time, but evidently not on the same level as Bruning. I have, however, been collecting examples of sentences like these for years, and now have a good reason to share them. I have generally put the phrase in brackets, and in some instances if there's an unsaid element (like "I would wear it" in example 2), I have left an underscore where we might expect another syntactic element. So without further ado:

  1. The one I had at tale was [I can't even handle it] sweet.
  2. It was totally an [I would wear____] style.
  3. You put your computer in the [my computer] spot.
  4. It's a really [hard to open] door.
  5. It's not entirely a [nigga, we made it] moment. (Childish Gambino in an interview)
  6. Did you swallow a [too big] piece?
  7. Sometimes when I cough it sound like it's a sickness cough but it's really a [my-lungs-aren't-ok] cough.
  8. It's always bad when it's *too* [too big].
  9. Please return for a [left behind] item. (over the intercom at JFK airport)
  10. Is 250 texts a good number, or a [not enough____] number?
  11. As a [[i don't have to be there for very long] ____] I don't really mind it.
  12. It was almost [knock you over] wind.
  13. I don't have a specific [it has to look like this] idea.
  14. I'm sure you'll be past the [a thousand] mark.
  15. It's a vacation house, it's not a [___ live there] house.
  16. It was a [my lungs are tight] kind of cough.
  17. I don't mind the [making my own lunches] part of it...
  18. I'll find, like, *old* [my hair], and be like, "how did this happen?"
  19. It's a writing desk, not a [leave a pile of books and papers on it] desk.
  20. Go see Ailey. It's [change your life] good. (Advertisement in the subway for Alvin Ailey Dance Theater)
  21. It was too [not enough time].
  22. Wow, this is a really [___ sink into it] couch!
  23. It's [if you're desperate you'll eat it] bread.
  24. Now we have a [thank you] reason to send that card.
  25. I need an overnight flight, not a [during the day] flight.
  26. It's stupid. I wore a pair of boots on a [slightly too warm] day and it gave me a rash.
  27. That's the [be careful because if you sit on it wrong the chair might break] chair.

I really, thoroughly enjoyed this paper, which can be found [here].

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©Taylor Jones 2018

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