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Normally one would say (as Emily Dickinson did) "The heart wants what it wants." But consider these few examples from professional writers (screenwriters in this case).

  • "The heart wants what the heart wants." (A Walk in the Clouds)
  • "The heart wants what the heart wants." (Lake Placid)
  • "I guess the heart just wants what the heart wants." (Me, Myself & Irene)
  • "The heart wants what the heart wants." (Wonder Woman)

Does this not violate principle C of binding?

  1. The two noun phrases ("the heart") are R-expressions [non-pronoun referential expressions];
  2. the first c-commands the second;
  3. they surely refer to the same heart.

That is to say, they are bound when they should not be (principle C states that R-expressions should not be bound). Ergo, the sentence is ungrammatical.

Edit for clarification:

  • That the sentence is acceptable is not disputed. In fact, it is the first premise of the question (hence the quotes).
  • Acceptability and grammaticality are not used synonymously. It is not hard to find sentences that are acceptable but ungrammatical. Also, "ungrammatical" is not used pejoratively.
  • "Ungrammatical" is used (in accordance to the dictionary definition) to mean "not conforming to grammatical rules", regardless whether or not there is usage.
  • The question is about an apparent exception to a specific grammatical rule, i.e. whether the rule has been misinterpreted or has been or should be revised or rejected in favour of another rule.
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4 Answers 4

40

There's nothing ungrammatical about sentences such as

  • 'John is John.' [Tony Blair],
  • 'a dog is a d/Dog' [the title, with the single capital D, by T S Eliot: Best Poems]
  • 'It is what it is.'
  • 'It will take what it will take.'
  • 'THE new Deputy First Minister, Shona Robison, has said that independence will “take as long as it takes".' Sunday National / Scotland / 2023 Mar 29
  • 'The heart wants what the heart wants.'

and Binding Theories should adjust where necessary to not lead to their labelling as ungrammatical. Idioms with unusual grammar are termed 'extra-grammatical' (outside the normal parameters, but idiomatic and acceptable).

But just as most would consider Chomsky's perfectly grammatical famous contrived sentence 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously' unacceptable on other grounds (nonsense), many consider some grammatical sentences (eg 'He has a minute house that is very small') which contain redundancy to be unacceptable. But used with care, such sentences can convey a pithy, powerful message, usually with a pragmatic 'let's get real' thrust, though the surface form may appear blindingly obvious. And redundancies are sometimes preferred forms. See Is 'mention in passing' redundant?.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on English Language & Usage Meta, or in English Language & Usage Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – tchrist
    Apr 1, 2023 at 20:42
  • I think 'He has a tiny house that is very small' is perfectly grammatical, with no redundancy. "Tiny house" is a specific variety of houses, and you're saying that he has a very small example of that type of house.
    – nick012000
    Apr 4, 2023 at 12:40
  • ... I assume it 'minute house', unlike 'minute steak', must be the double rather than single lexeme, @nick01. The revised example must, rather than could, contain redundancy. Apr 4, 2023 at 13:01
  • @EdwinAshworth No, it's a term used to refer to a specific style of house en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiny-house_movement
    – nick012000
    Apr 4, 2023 at 13:48
  • No ... I've disambiguated now by using the A + N string 'minute house'. / The 'it' was meant to be 'that'; I was too busy searching for another possible recent coining. / 'Tiny house' as A + N is certainly allowed by the normal rules of English. Apr 4, 2023 at 18:21
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Grammatically, the sentence is similar to, for example,

I want what you want.

In this sentence, “what you want” is a noun clause, functioning as the object of the main verb.

However, the kind of duplication you were asking about is an idiom expressing resignation or fatalism. For example, in the battle of Mars-la-Tour on August 16, 1870, German General Constantin von Alvensleben ordered Wilhelm Adalbert von Bredow to charge his cavalry brigade into a French force four times its size. Von Bredow’s reply is usually translated, “It will cost what it will.” The charge won the battle, but cost so many of the attackers’ lives, it became known as “Von Bredow’s death ride.”

Similarly, the song

Que será, será
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see.

The message of the song is supposed to be that you shouldn’t worry and it will all be fine in the end, but it’s usually referenced when we anticipate something bad about to happen.

The same is true of several of Edwin Ashworth’s examples, such as “It is what it is,” (used to describe a bad situation that cannot be changed) and “It will take what it will take,” (warning the listener that the cost of something is not yet known, it will be high, but there is no alternative).

“The heart wants what the heart wants,” is a well-known expression meaning that you cannot choose to stop having feelings for someone, no matter how much you might want to.

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The second "the heart" is not an R-expression. It is an anaphor whose antecedent is the first "the heart".

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  • 3
    This answer had potential. An explanation of how the phrase is an anaphor rather than an R- expression is needed.
    – bradimus
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:12
  • I don't think it is. The second "heart" cannot stand on its own. It is part of a noun phrase "what the heart wants." This is exophoric as "what the heart wants" could be anything. The two "heart"s may have different meanings.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 4, 2023 at 15:08
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Is "The heart wants what the heart wants" grammatical? If so, why?

Yes. It follows the standard Subject Verb Object form of the English sentence:

"The heart (subject) wants (verb) {what the heart wants} (noun phrase as object)."

It is no different from "I want a banana."

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