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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I have often wondered the same thing

The Google Search function is a great resource for philosophers of language. Just realized that, contrary to what many thinkers have argued, 'wonder' does indeed select determiner phrases with a question meaning in natural language. Here are some search results:

(1) I’ve often wondered the same thing.
(2) Ever wondered the answer to any of these questions?
(3) Ever wondered the "right" way to describe swordfights?
(4) Stratford wondered the time line.
(5) If you've ever wondered the value of partner programs from software/hardware companies, let me give you my perspective from the front lines.
(6) Geisenberger wondered the price range.
(7) Hopkinson wondered the height of the tallest building in this neighborhood.

This datum, of course, has intrinsic interest. But what's the broader impact? Well, some thinkers have argued that determiner phrase complement clauses cannot be interpreted as concealed questions, because if they were, we should expect 'wonder' to select determiner phrases as complements. As 'wonder' does select determiner phrases as complements, determiner phrase complement clauses can (just maybe) be interpreted as concealed questions. Needless to say I was thrilled to discover this.


Lance said...

Wow. So let's see.

When Kai, who was my dissertation advisor and who keeps much better tabs on the linguistic blogosphere than I do, first pointed me here, I only kind of skimmed the examples, and thought they were all along the lines of (1). I see, though, that they're not uniform in style, so let me tackle them separately.

"I've wondered the same thing", as well as related examples ("I've wondered that as well"; "Do you know what I'm wondering?"), I discuss in my dissertation, On the interpretation of concealed questions. I think that these things do in fact provide strong evidence that the prohibition of "wonder" taking concealed question objects--if such a prohibition exists, as past authors (as you note) assume, as do I--isn't syntactic in origin. "Wonder" can take determiner phrase complements with question meanings. But I don't think "the same thing", "that", or "what" are properly considered to be concealed questions; they're just anaphoric DPs that pick up whatever salient meaning they need to, and that meaning can be an individual, a question, a quotation ("He said the same thing"; "He said that?"; "That's what he said!"), etc.

Now, of the six remaining, three of the examples--(4), (6), and (7)--all come from the minutes of town meetings. I hate to bicker over the validity of data, but I think this is telling. Certain constructions are valid in recipes that aren't valid in general ("Add milk to flour; stir"), and similarly for journals (dropping first-person subjects as in "Just realized that, contrary to what many thinkers have argued..."). I don't want to argue for a separate "town meeting minutes grammar", but I might suggest that there's a certain non-grammatical shorthand that creeps into that kind of writing. (Example (3) comes from the two-line description of a workshop on a convention program, so the same kind of caveat could conceivably reply.)

As far as it goes, though, for all that the examples appear in natural language writing on the web, I'm not 100% convinced that they're grammatical. They still sound quite odd to me--(2) less so, but I think I can tell a story as to why "wonder the answer" would behave differently, if pressed. Again, at the risk of quibbling over examples, I'd be willing to file these away under Pullum's argument against "Everything is correct". Are your intuitions that the sentences are genuinely acceptable?

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Lance,
Yes, I agree with you that the "wonder" examples are awkward-sounding. But I think that the parallel examples with "ask" are somewhat stilted as well (even if better-sounding). For example (also from the web) "Council member Brown asked the time frame for implementing these goals" seems to me to be only marginally better than "Brown wondered the time frame for implementing these goals".

Admittedly, if I had to draw a line, it would be between the two but the examples with "ask" would only barely make the "alright" category, and the examples with "wonder" would only barely make the "not alright" category.

I wonder if the "wonder" examples are strictly ungrammatical or just uncommon (or marginal). Perhaps you are right that they belong to a certain kind of (error-ridden) town-meeting dialect.

BTW I read most of your dissertation. Very convincing. I think I missed the "wondered the same thing" examples. I will go back and look. I like Baker's proposal (or at least some syntactic version of the wh-approach) but I realize that it leaves lots of questions unanswered. Lots to think about.