LINGUIST List 7.530

Wed Apr 10 1996

Sum: German partial-VP fronting

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  1. Dick Hudson, German partial-VP fronting

Message 1: German partial-VP fronting

Date: Tue, 09 Apr 1996 13:35:56 BST
From: Dick Hudson <r.hudsonlinguistics.ucl.ac.uk>
Subject: German partial-VP fronting

I recently used the Linguist list to post a request for judgements
from native speakers of German to the following six sentences:

(1) Wirkliche Fehler waren ihm in seinen Vortraegen nie unterlaufen.

(2) In seinen Vortraegen waren ihm wirkliche Fehler nie unterlaufen.

(3) Unterlaufen waren ihm wirkliche Fehler in seinen Vortraegen nie.

(4) Wirkliche Fehler unterlaufen waren ihm in seinen Vortraegen nie.

(5) In seinen Vortraegen unterlaufen waren ihm wirkliche Fehler nie.

(6) In seinen Vortraegen wirkliche Fehler unterlaufen waren ihm nie.

BACKGROUND

My intention was to explore one small area of uncertainty about
so-called `partial VP-fronting' (located in (6)), but the result was
far more interesting. I had a lot of replies - 36 to date, and
they're still coming in! - which makes it possible to raise some more
general questions about this construction.


PEOPLE

I am extremely grateful to all those who took the trouble to reply
(listed below), and especially to those who sent me thoughtful and
linguistically sophisticated comments. Readers of Linguist hardly
count as naive, and some reactions may have been working from the
known rules to the judgements, rather than the other way
round. However there is enough variation to make me confident that
most of the reactions come from the heart (or the gut?); and since
this is such an ill-understood phenomenon, I doubt if prescriptive
grammarians have said much about it. I have lumped all reactions
together in the following statistics, but I'll be happy to share the
correspondence with anyone interested in the more detailed comments.

Contributors (including some reactions collected before the Linguist
mailing)

 Peter Kistler Bandung, Maria-Luise Beck, Franz Beil, Beate Benndorf,
 Karsten Breul, Eva Eppler, Christoph Eyrich, Christiana Fellbaum, Gabi
 Fiedler, Marita Franzke, Wilhelm Geuder, Udo Hahn, Daniela Hartmann,
 Maren Heydel, Markus Hiller, Paulina Jaenecke, Martin Jensche, Thomas
 Klein, Joerg Knappen, Heinz Kreutz, Knud Lambrecht, Ewald Lang,
 Stefan Langer, Torsten Leuschner, Sebastian Loebner, Lutz Marten, Stefan
 Mueller, Hans Peters, Carsten Peutz, Tobias Scheer, Karl-Michael
 Schneider, ? Schuele, Mathias Schulze, Bettina Sebek, Thomas Shannon's
 wife, Marianne Janko Washburn, Richard Wiese, Vanessa Will, Malte
 Zimmermann.

JUDGEMENTS ON INDIVIDUAL SENTENCES

I have 36 judgements on each sentence, which I report after the
sentence concerned; I ignore the comments that a lot of people made
about markedness and the need for specific contexts. I return below to
the distribution of these judgements among speakers, which I find
interesting.

(1) Wirkliche Fehler waren ihm in seinen Vortraegen nie unterlaufen.
ok: 36/36

(2) In seinen Vortraegen waren ihm wirkliche Fehler nie unterlaufen.
ok: 36/36

(3) Unterlaufen waren ihm wirkliche Fehler in seinen Vortraegen nie.
*: 3. ok: 23. ?: 10

(4) Wirkliche Fehler unterlaufen waren ihm in seinen Vortraegen nie.
*: 8. ok: 26. ?: 2.

(5) In seinen Vortraegen unterlaufen waren ihm wirkliche Fehler nie.
*: 23. ok: 8. ?: 5.

(6) In seinen Vortraegen wirkliche Fehler unterlaufen waren ihm nie.
*: 32. ok: 2. ?: 2.

REACTION PATTERNS

Contributors could give any reactions they wanted, which gave rise to
a variety of different types of reaction ranging from simple
grammatical/ungrammatical judgements to complex expressions of
uncertainty, which I've tried to simplify without too much loss in the
above figures. In other words, these figures should be treated with
caution, just like any other bald judgements made by
linguists. However there are some striking regularities among the
reactions which suggest the existence of genuine *competence
differences* among speakers (maybe even dialects), as well as the
inevitable differences in their ways of judging sentences.

The following table presents the patterns, ignoring sentences (1) and
(2) because everyone accepted them, and (3) because doubts are easily
explained (see Note).

 (4) (5) (6) Number

A. ok ok * 17
B1. * * * 9
B2. ? * * 7
X1 ok ok ok 2
X2. * ok * 1

Notes:
Re A: 12 of the 17 B speakers found (3) and (5) semantically odd, but
this would be easy to explain as the result of splitting a collocation
"Ein Fehler X unterlaufen", `a mistake happen to X' (i.e. X make a
mistake).

INTERPRETATION

German speakers seem to split into those who quite happily accept both
(4) and (5), and those who reject both (with some acceptance of
(4)). This is the basis for the division into the A and B groups. (The
X groups are very much in the minority, but deserve further
consideration!)

It's not at all clear how to make more general sense of these
data. Why should (4) be linked to (5) in judgement patterns? Rejection
of (4) could be due to a more general ban on front-shifting of
subjects (which are allowed by A speakers), but that wouldn't explain
the rejection of (5), which contains a front-shifted adjunct. Nor can
we explain the rejection of (5) by saying it splits the subject-verb
collocation, because A speakers accept it. If anyone has any thoughts
on this question I'd be most interested to hear them!

Meanwhile the data confirm two claims which are of general interest to
theoretical grammarians:
a. German allows the verb to be front-shifted without the rest of the VP.
b. Some (but maybe not all) German speakers allow some subjects to be
front-shifted along with the verb.
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