Plurals and Deferred Ostension

Plurals and Deferred Ostension

I was trying to use some other examples of deferred ostension in order to put some constraints on what might be happening with the ‘we’ in “We won 4-2 last night”. The canonical example is (1)

(1) The ham sandwich is getting impatient.

This manages to communicate that the person who ordered the ham sandwich is getting impatient. That is, “the ham sandwich” somehow manages to pick out the person who ordered the ham sandwich.

Both the explicit term “the ham sandwich” and the intended referent, its orderer, are singular. I was wondering what happened when we made either plural. First, imagine that the person ordering hadn’t ordered a ham sandwich, but had instead ordered the olives. Then I think (2a) would be more or less appropriate, but (2b) would be infelicitous.

(2a) ?The olives are getting impatient.
(2b) #The olives is getting impatient.

Second, imagine that the intended referent is plural, but the phrase used is singular. So a table of people ordered the paella, and they are getting impatient. I think (3a) is a little better than (3b).

(3a) ?The paella are getting impatient.
(3b) ??The paella is getting impatient.

Do others agree with those judgments? If they’re right, they suggest that plurality ‘trumps’. That is, if either the noun phrase used, or the intended referent, is plural, then the verb should be plural as well.

5 Replies to “Plurals and Deferred Ostension”

  1. Something about the example of the olives sounds weird to me. Maybe it’s because it’s less natural to imagine the context, since it’s harder to see that a waiter would use “the olives” to make a defereed ostension. You might try to find a better example of something plural that someone might order to test intuitions. French fries? Or suppose the customer had ordered a soup and a salad. Then of:

    (4a) The soup and salad is getting impatient
    (4b) The soup and salad are getting impatient

    4a sounds much more natural to me. But perhaps “soup and salad” is a bad example, because it’s really singular (a combo treated as one thing).

    Take another example. Suppose we want to say something else about the customer who ordered olives:

    (5a) The olives is a really creepy guy.
    (5b) The olives are a really creepy guy.

    or even

    (6a) The olives is really creepy.
    (6b) The olives are really creepy.

    Again, 5a and 6a sound more natural to me.

  2. I think the following sounds fine:

    (2b’) Olives is getting impatient.

    But this would sound odd in the context you describe:

    (2a’) Olives are getting impatient.

    Not sure if the ‘the’ is important for your purposes. ‘Olives’ does count as a noun phrase. But it also does kind of sound like an actual name, as in

    (7) Knuckles is getting impatient.

    and that might be preventing the trump.

    Suppose that five investors are building a strip mall on lot 41. The construction is behind schedule, they’re all standing there impatiently complaining about delays, and the site manager phones his boss and says,

    (8a) Lot 41 is getting impatient.
    (8b) Lot 41 are getting impatient.

    8a sounds better to my ear. So I think the trump can’t just be plurality of either noun phrase or referent.

  3. I’m really not so sure either way about the paella example. But there could also be a distinction between North American and other dialects of English – after all, North Americans can’t say “My team are winning”. We put much more weight on syntactic agreement in these cases I guess.

  4. In a quite interesting and informative chapter on agreement, Pollard and Sag (1994) cite the example “The hash browns at table 9 is/*are getting angry”, vs. “…are/*is getting cold. (I remembered it from Pollard/Sag, but looking at the source, it might originate in Nunberg’s dissertation.) They also give an example with pronoun agreement (“The hash browns at table 9 said he can’t find the men’s room.”)

    These are all linguists, by the way, in case anyone is trying to locate them in their philosopher-directory.

  5. For what it’s worth, (2b) actually sounds fine to me, and better than (2a) for the described situation. For some reason, the examples in (3) sound worse to me. (3a) is best, but still kind of weird, as you indicate. Thanks.

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