I would like a generative BNF-style complete description for English grammar. Some of the more subtle stuff leads to awkward questions of grammaticality (a complete answer to this question, and all related questions, is a publication with a complete description of a comprehensible and comprehensive formal grammar which generates exactly the set of grammatical English sentences):

Here is question 1: is grammaticality of verbs ever dependent on external context from other sentences? If so, then those constructions obviously require some semantics.

The two sentences below are the context

  1. John smiled at Lisa at Kinko's.
  2. John asked Lisa for advice at Kinko's.

After either 1 or 2, you say:

  • I did what John did at Kinkos at James
  • I did what John did at Kinkos of my friend

I believe the second form is certainly not grammatical in case 1. How about case 2? I am not sure if the first sentence is grammatical even in case 1. Should they be

  • I did what John did to Lisa at Kinkos to James?

In other words, do the arguments have to match "do" or the verb that is implied by context by the "do"?

More generally, are there any cases where the grammaticality of a sentence requires looking at other sentences for context?

  • 1
    Some references for you: "English is not a Context-Free Language", "Evidence Against the Context-freeness of Natural Language", and "Natural Languages and Context-free Languages". The general consensus (actually, no, consensus is too strong of a word) is that most natural language utterances are context-free in the technical sense, but that there are certain constructions that are context-dependent. – Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 3:35
  • I don't have enough info to really answer your question, but I will say that the two examples don't sound right to me even /with/ the context of the preceding sentences, let alone without :) Perhaps they're "grammatically correct" on some semantic level, but in practice I don't think anyone would say it that way. – Lynn Mar 5 '12 at 3:56
  • "of my friend" sounds wrong to me – Bidella Mar 5 '12 at 4:07
  • @Lynn: Consider also "John asked Linda what time it was", "I did too, of James". And "John smiled at Linda", "I did too, at James". These might sound more pleasing to the ear. – Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 5:42
  • 1
    This has been addressed at the linguistics SE, at linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/1090/… – prash Mar 5 '12 at 10:04

Upon further reflection, and Ron's response to my comment, I did want to expand my comment to an answer.

In other words, do the arguments have to match "do" or the verb that is implied by context by the "do"?

"Do" is a special verb that usually does not stand alone. Consider these exchanges:

"Did you meet Patty?" "I did, at the mall."

"Did you go with Patty?" "I did, to the mall."

The responses are really just ellipsis. The full thoughts are:

"I did meet Patty at the mall."

"I did go with Patty to the mall."

Despite the omission of the helping verb, the preposition still needs to match it in the ellipse or it will sound wrong.

Now something closer to your example:

I did what Patty did, at the mall. (Patty put up some posters for the musical)

I did what Patty did, to the mall. (Patty vandalized the theater)

Depending on what Patty did, either could be correct.

So I guess the short answer is yes: context matters.

However, in all of these situations, the context you need comes from the speaker's intent not from the surrounding sentences. When I say "what Patty did" I could be talking about something that happened months or years ago. When I make an ellipsis in thought, the context necessary to decipher that ellipsis may or may not be present in the preceding sentences - it may hearken back to something earlier in the conversation.

  • +1: yes, I agree. Unfortunately, this sort of thing dooms an attempt to say whether sentences are grammatical in a stand-alone way, since it requires you to read the speakers mind. I believe this type of construction only occurs in informal speech, and is not allowed in newspapers (but I might be wrong--- "Congress took a vacation, despite the heavy workload. Obama did too, in August.") – Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 13:51
  • 1
    It is not limited to informal speech, though I would agree it's more likely to be found there: From The Economist "Rio’s shareholders opposed the sale but many reckon that the Australian government did, too." (Of course, that one has a "but" in it but didn't have to.) – Lynn Mar 5 '12 at 16:38
  • Thanks, but I this doesn't settle things, because "... the Australian government did, too" is easy to parse, there are no arguments. If they said "... the Australian government did too, of the purchase", then you would have to look at what verb "did" refers to to figure out if it is grammatical. This type of argument shifting is what I was hoping doesn't occur. My Obama Congress example doesn't do it either, I now realize. – Ron Maimon Mar 5 '12 at 18:04
  • @RonMaimon: I see what you mean. I was finding a real instance of your Obama example. I'm sure if you looked enough you would find an example in written form of the real situation you're looking for. It's an uncommon construct, period, but it is not limited to the spoken word. In fact, I would speculate that it's actually more common in the written word because it sounds really awkward to talk that way. – Lynn Mar 5 '12 at 22:49

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