A hunch

6 minute read


I think a lot about what I call “coordinators” in natural languages. They are non-local elements that nevertheless must appear together (or even appear similar in form). One example of non-local coordinators is the English disjunction coordinators either…or… (as in (1a)).1 When a disjunction begins with either, or must also appear (1b) (* indicates ungrammaticality).

(1) a. Pat eats either rice or beans.
      b. *Pat eats either rice beans.

Coordinators fascinate me because they relate to each other at a distance (they are usually not adjacent to each other, being separated by other words). Linguists study these long-distance relations because they reveal a key property of human language - it often relies on non-local, non-linear relations. In the case of coordinators, how does the grammar ensure that when one of them appears, the other must also appear? As a metaphor, how does one element signal to the other: “I’m here, and you’d better also appear”? Under what conditions must they cooccur, and why? This post talks about my speculation about what conditions their cooccurrence.

You may still wonder why I am interested in such a narrow topic - who cares about small words like either and or anyway? I will tell you why at the end of this post.

To begin, let’s reconsider either…or…. Interestingly, while either cannot appear without or (1b), or can appear without either (2). In other words, in English disjunction, either, the initial coordinator is optional, whereas or, the second coordinator is obligatory. 

(2) Pat eats rice or beans.

Based on a small number of observations in English and Mandarin Chinese, I have a speculation for all coordinated constructions in all languages: the initial coordinator is easier to be left out than the second coordinator.2 What this means is: for a construction, if we can drop the second coordinator but not the initial one, then there must be a version of the same construction where the initial coordinator can be dropped but not the second one. Imagine a hypothetical language English’ where (1b) is grammatical, then (2) must also be grammatical. There is no language where (1b) is grammatical, but (2) is not.

Now I will discuss a few coordinated structures in English and Mandarin Chinese, and show that they all comply to this generalization. (If you know of any counterexample in any language, let me know!)

English conjunction coordinators bothand… behave in parallel to eitheror…: while both is optional in a conjoined structure, and is not. Mandarin Chinese has dis/conjunction coordinators that behave just like English ones, so I won’t repeat them here.

What is interesting about Mandarin Chinese is that it has a wider range of coordinators to study than English appears to have. For instance, Chinese has an “although…but…” construction, where although and but can cooccur (2a). Interestingly, only although can be dropped (3b), but not but (3c):3

(3) a. Suiran     ta  shule, danshi  ta   hen   gaoxing
          Although   he  lost     but         he  very  happy
          ’Although he lost, he was very happy.’
     b. Ta   shule, danshi  ta    hen    gaoxing
         He   lost     but          he   very   happy
     c. Suiran    ta   shule,  ta    hen    gaoxing
           Although he  lost       he   very   happy

If we take suiran ‘although’ to be the initial coordinator and danshi ‘but’ to be the second one, this conforms to my generalization: suiran is easier to be dropped than danshi. Mandarin Chinese has many more such constructions that behave in parallel, such as yinweisuoyi… ‘because…therefore…’, where yinwei ‘because’ can be omitted but not suoyi ‘therefore’. For the sake of space, I do not enumerate the examples here.

Having examined Mandarin Chinese, we may now return to English and wonder whether it has a parallel construction to Chinese “although…but…” (or “because…therefore…”), but somehow the coordinators although and but can never cooccur in English (4a)?

(4) a. Although she lost, but she was happy.
      b. Although she lost, she was happy.
      c. She lost, but she was happy.

Let’s set aside the question of why English does not allow the cooccurrence of although and but, but Chinese does. If we accept that English does have such a parallel construction (i.e., the single occurrence of although means the omission of but (4b), and the single occurrence of but means the omission of although (4c)), then it may appear to pose a challenge to my generalization. The initial coordinator can be dropped, and the second coordinator can as well!

This is why it is important to clarify: my generalization is not about banning the omission of the second coordinator altogether. It only says that the second coordinator is harder to be omitted than the initial one. In other words, (4) is not a counterexample. But if we find a language where (4b) is not grammatical but (4c) is, then it is a problem.

If this generalization is true, why is it so? I offer nothing but another (very vague) speculation that it may have to do with information structure, i.e. how humans organize and think about information. Maybe the later part of a sentence is naturally more prominent than the earlier part. Then in a coordinated structure, we want to make the information in the second part more salient and clear than the information in the first part, possibly by not dropping the second coordinator as much as the initial one.

By the way, this is also why linguists are interested in these seemingly narrow and small questions. They offer insights into how humans think about and organize information. If my generalization is universally true, then it is even more striking: no matter what language a human speaks, they follow the same principle in arranging coordinators.

  1. Although either and or do not look similar, the negated disjunction coordinators neither and nor do, both beginning with n-, which marks their negative property. In many languages, the disjunction coordinators are even identical. Polish is a language that showcases this property nicely. Its counterpart of “either…or…” is alboalbo…; its “neither…nor…” (the negative version of “either…or…”) is aniani…; and its “whether…or…” (the wh-version of “either…or…”) is czyczy…. 

  2. I use the phrase second coordinator (for simplicity), though I really mean noninitial coordinator here. This is because sometimes there are more than two coordinated parts, e.g. rice, beans, and bread in “Pat eats either rice or beans or bread.” The ors in this sentence are noninitial coordinators, and they should be harder to omit than either, the initial coordinator. 

  3. (3c) would be ok if we insert que in the second clause, a particle that roughly means ‘but’:
    (i) Suiran    ta   shule, ta que   hen   gaoxing
          Although he  lost     he   but    very  happy
    I take que to be a second coordinator much in the same way as danshi ‘but’. Then the obligatory presence of the second coordinator (que or danshi) in this construction is still compliant to my generalization.
    We can also use haishi ‘still’ instead of que in (i), so haishi is another second coordinator just like que and danshi

Leave a Comment