Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wh-the-Hell: Pair-List Readings with Multiple Questions

Den Dikken and Giannakidou (2002) claim that there is a difference between matrix and embedded questions with wh-the-hell. They say that in a matrix multiple question, a pair-list reading is impossible:

(1) Who the hell is in love with who?

(This is den Dikken and Giannakidou's example 64a, which they give one question mark; they say that a previous publication, a UCLA MA thesis cited as Lee 1994, marked it as completely ungrammatical. I find neither judgment accurate; the sentence is perfect in the right context. See below.)

Sentence (1), according to den Dikken and Giannakidou (2002), only has a single-pair echo reading. In contrast, when it is embedded, it can have a pair-list reading (this is their example 64b):

(2) I am wondering who the hell is in love with who.

Den Dikken and Giannakidou (2002) go on to design a theory of wh-the-hell and questions generally that derives this difference. The details of this theory are not important here, since what I am concerned with is the accuracy of this claimed contrast. I believe a matrix question like (1) can have a pair-list reading, in the right context.

Imagine an Agatha Christie-type murder mystery where the detectives are called to investigate a murder at a country manor. They discover numerous love affairs, love triangles, unrequited loves, and jealousy. After interviewing multiple house guests and family members, one detective turns to the other in exasperation and says, ``Who the hell is in love with who? I can't keep track, have you been making a list?''

In such a context, the sentence in (1) easily has a pair-list reading, as indicated by the follow-up, ``have you been making a list?'' If this judgment is accurate, then the claim in den Dikken and Giannakidou (2002) is not correct, and there is no root/embedded asymmetry to account for.

To verify the accuracy of this judgment, I also looked for such questions occurring on the internet. I found a few that seem to have pair-list readings, as indicated by the context. Here are two:

  • Who the Hell is Who? (title of page http://rense.com/general41/skolmdfng.htm, which goes on to list who each person is)
  • But who the hell says what? (game where the reader has to guess who produced a quote, with a whole series of them; http://www.sugarscape.com/main-topics/homepage/804060/it’s-one-direction-“who-hell-said-what

Both of these are matrix questions, and both go on to give a list of pairs. Here is another one:

  • Caesar starts the ape rebellion which was talked about in the first films, Caesar is the son of Cornelius and Zira who only went back in time because of Brent who went to the future because of Taylor, so who the hell started what? (http://scificolony.canaryzoo.com/Fanzine%20Movie%20Sagas/fanzine%20saga%20planet%20of%20the%20apes.htm)

It is not completely clear how many whos and how many whats there are, but the list of potential whos is quite long. In my judgment there could easily be multiple pairs, and it is quite likely that multiple pairs are intended. And again, the sentence is a matrix question, not an embedded one.

I conclude that den Dikken and Giannakidou's claimed contrast between matrix and embedded questions is not real. Multiple wh-the-hell questions can have pair-list interpretations whether they are embedded or not.


den Dikken, Marcel and Anastasia Giannakidou (2002), From Hell to Polarity: ``Aggressively Non-D-Linked'' Wh-Phrases as Polarity Items. Linguistic Inquiry 33: 31--61.