I was intrigued by an observation made by Noam Chomsky in this video, namely that if we take the sentence John ate an apple and drop an apple to get John ate

John ate an apple.

John ate.

we understand it to mean that John ate something else. On the other hand, if we take John is too stubborn to talk to Bill and drop Bill

John is too stubborn to talk to Bill.

John is too stubborn to talk to.

it means John is too stubborn for someone else to talk to him. It could've meant that John is too stubborn to talk to someone else, but it doesn't mean that. So my question is why aren't the semantic interpretations uniform in this sense?

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    A basic guideline for this sort of investigation (there are no "rules" of course) is that you must drop a complete phrase -- you can't drop part of it and, as a result, change the part of speech of the remaining words. The prepositional phrase is "to Bill". Dropping just "Bill" changes "to" from a preposition to an adverb, completely changing its meaning -- it isn't a simple deletion. (Chomsky knows this, he's just playing games with you.) – Hot Licks Nov 5 '15 at 1:41
  • @HotLicks, Ermm - Haven't you just repeated what I said 14 minutes ago? – chasly - supports Monica Nov 5 '15 at 1:43
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    @chaslyfromUK - Sort of. But a bit more clearly. – Hot Licks Nov 5 '15 at 1:46
  • That's a matter of opinion! – chasly - supports Monica Nov 5 '15 at 1:47
  • +1 Excellent question. Won't have time to answer it but it's basically about hollow clauses (or tough movement) versus control verbs (Equi-deletion). I think John Lawler might come along and give you a good answer for this! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Nov 5 '15 at 1:48

We are offered the following sentences:

John ate an apple.

John ate.

The second is just the first with the direct object removed.

Then we are shown the following:

John is too stubborn to talk to Bill.

John is too stubborn to talk to.

Chomsky wants us to drop 'Bill'. He says this is analogous to dropping 'an apple' in his first example. However it is not. Chomsky is playing a trick on us.

The reason is that 'Bill' (unlike the apple) is not a direct object. We should instead drop 'to Bill'.

Then we would have:

John is too stubborn to talk to Bill.
John is too stubborn to talk.

That causes no problems and doesn't change the basic parsing of the sentence any more than we had to change the parse in the apple scenario.

So, what happens when we fall for the Chomsky trick? We leave the 'to' in place and orphan it by removing the very thing it refers to. Now we have to find something else for it to refer to. There is only one possibility and that is John.

Now we simply parse the sentence differently and give it the new meaning.


How the new version of the sentence is parsed may be tricky but it is a completely different question and has nothing to do with the apple scenario. Nor does it have any grammatical relationship with the "John is too stubborn to talk to Bill" sentence. The two sentences just have a lot of vocabulary in common.

  • No, your example "John is too stubborn to talk" is not at all like "John ate". Restoring an understood object to the latter gives you, in context, "John ate an apple", but for your example, there is no understood object of "talk" to restore. – Greg Lee Nov 5 '15 at 3:03
  • @GregLee - That's exactly the point I'm making -- and that is why I say Chomsky has played a trick on us. Unfortunately I deleted my other answer that explained in great detail just the difference you mentioned. If you want a parallel then you can 'talk sense' just as you can 'eat an apple'. (Oops, Just realised -- I said the bit about playing a trick in my deleted answer -- maybe I should reinstate it) – chasly - supports Monica Nov 5 '15 at 3:24
  • @GregLee - Okay I've done an edit. How's it looking now? – chasly - supports Monica Nov 5 '15 at 3:33
  • I can't really follow the logic of your argument. You say Chomsky misleads us comparing the dropping of a direct object with the dropping of the object of a preposition. Well, why should those be different? You don't explain. Then you go on to consider the dropping of an entire prepositional phrase, which apparently you do think is like dropping a direct object. But why is it like that? A prepositional phrase is not a direct object. – Greg Lee Nov 5 '15 at 4:10

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