There once was a linguist who was obsessed with syntactic discontinuities—
So much so he refused to draw a single, solitary syntactic tree
Without any crossing lines.
And this timely poem reminds
Us syntacticians everywhere of the dangers of doing syntax too wild, too free.
He loved syntactic topicalisations, or, perhaps, as he might put it,
‘Topicalisations, those he loved’ (forgive the resumptive; I had to add it
For reasons of scansion and meter):
He thought this syntax neater
And even wrote papers proposing its use in lects that had never had it!
As for the English phrasal verb with direct objects interposed
(Like ‘I gave linguistics up’), he claimed he’d discovered some data which showed
That everywhere, cross-linguistically,
Verbs were underlyingly
Structured like this—his argument something to do with avoiding cognitive overload.
I could go on about extraposition and his total avoidance of centre-embedding
Every title of every paper, every abstract and each sub-heading
Were written as extrapositions
To the detriment of the expression
And no-one understood him at all, who attended his lectures or sessions.
Well, we all know the dangers of too much syntax—and as in syntax so in life:
This displaced linguist started off by extraposing his wife;
Then endlessly topicalised himself;
Then drank too much and scrambled his health;
And his continued fronting of wh-s caused untold misery, widespread strife.
He inserted his seven children between verbal and particle lexical heads;
He told them off and shut them up and sent them off on their own to bed
And the pics of the day of his wedding
He subjected to types of de-centre embedding
And the bits that were left were scrambled into a w[tf]h- collage instead.
All his friends left him; his friends all left him; his friends, moreover, left him, all
When he claimed you can insert ‘all’ between a nominal head and its relative clause:
‘The linguists, all, who lived in the city
Had partners neither ugly nor pretty’;
He thought it should win him the Nobel Prize, but it never came, the call.
(Towards the end he even argued for phonetic discontinuities
He devised an extraposition rule for laterals; in the phrase ‘If you please’
He rendered it ‘If you pease-l’—
Which caused a degree of upheaval
To standard theories of phonotactics and syllabicity.)
No-one knows what became of him; his career was discontinued
Which is only to be expected for a syntactician when you’ve
Focussed on such an area;
It pays to be far warier:
Syntax is known to transform the very structures deep within you.
So the moral of this syntragic story’s as terrible as it is plain to see:
Phonology’s safe, pragmatics safer, but the combinatoriality
Of the lexeme and the constituent
For even the most intelligent
Is a branch within linguistics that one should climb up carefully.
Regular syntax is tough enough; don’t worry about the complexities
Of the labyrinthine terrors of syntactic discontinuities;
You think you’ll find freedom there?
Better to breathe in poisoned air!
Keep straightforward and simple your life, your mind and your syntax trees!