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A minimalist analysis

In this sub-section, I summarise the account of the what with pattern within the framework of Minimalism, proposed by Felser & Britain (2007). They argue that what with absolutes are not constructions, which they take to be idiosyncractic form-meaning pairings, along the lines of the definition provided by Goldberg (1995: 4); their structure is compositional. An interesting feature of the account provided by Felser & Britain (2007) is that they attempt to make sense of corpus data from a minimalist perspective, rather than rely on native speaker intuitions. Their search of the British National Corpus (BNC) allows them to consider formal and functional variation: their specific interest concerns the distribution of what with patterns in the spoken and written subcorpora of the BNC, supplemented with some evidence taken from the internet. Since the focus here is preponderantly on the nature of the formal variation in the what with construction, properties associated with, for example, genre (spoken vs. written English) are not addressed in detail here.

In their account, Felser & Britain (2007) treat what with patterns[1] as factive, 'strong-presuppositional' (Katz 1993) adjuncts. The function of what with is to introduce a reason adjunct linked to a superordinate or matrix clause (following the definition of what with provided by the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. what II adv. or conj. 2. b)), a function that what with strings share with because clauses. In discussing previous research on free adjunct and absolute structures in English, Felser & Britain propose a modification to the claim put forward by Kortmann (1991: 202), which is that what with patterns are more restricted than with absolutes, because with what with, the matrix proposition "denotes some non-event or a negative state, or ... has certain negative implications (at least from the point of view of the speaker)". Rather, Felser & Britain suggest that what with patterns function to justify a claim made in the matrix clause. The high proportion of what with patterns with 'negative state' matrix propositions follows from the fact that such claims typically require (more) justification; but 'negative evaluation' is not inherent in the semantics of what with patterns.

The analysis proposed by Felser & Britain (2007) takes what with patterns as compositional strings, where both what and with are located in phrase structure as the heads of functional phrases. The specifics of this claim are elaborated immediately below, but here it should be pointed out that this compositionality is the central argument for Felser & Britain to reject a constructional analysis for what with: The structure can be adequately analysed within the architecture of minimalist phrase structure. Felser & Britain acknowledge that what with patterns are uncommon, that they have a particular pragmatic function, and that they often appear before a coordinated string or list, but suggest that there are strong arguments not in favour of a constructional account.

A crucial argument in this regard is that Felser & Britain (2007) consider the 'core' meaning of what with patterns to be distributable over the parts of the sequence. That is, the crucial factor of non-compositionalityis missing, and non-compositionality was taken as a defining feature in earlier accounts of Construction Grammar, as exemplified in the definition of a construction provided by Goldberg (1995: 4), namely: "C is a CONSTRUCTION iffdef C is a form-meaning pair <F;, such that some aspect of or some aspect of S; is not strictly predictable from C's component parts or from other previously established constructions."[2] The grounds for the compositional analysis are as follows.

Felser & Britain (2007) take what with patterns which have ing+subject and en complements (for instance, in examples (8b) and (8d) above) as the 'basic' structure. In this analysis, with is a prepositional Complementizer, which takes a TP complement. Evidence in favour of this analysis comes from a range of syntactic tests, such as quantifier float, passivization, the possibility of expletive or pleonastic subjects, and negative scope effects.

The other complements of what and with are also clausal in this analysis. In instances where the participial complement of (what) with has no subject (for instance, in example (8c) above), its status as a clause is evidenced by patterns associated with passivization and clausal negation. Even apparently verbless clauses, that is, those with what appear to be simply nominal complements such as (8a), should still be analysed as having a clausal structure, this time with a null T head and pro in spec-TP position. The argument proposed in this case relies on associations between what with patterns and with absolutes. Felser & Britain (2007) analyse instances of the latter, such as (9):

(9) with a new baby, we have very little spare time.

as having "an understood possessional have or existential there be interpretation', noting that what with constructions can involve coordination of NP and ing +subj complements. An example of this from the COCA corpus is (10):

(10) What with the boyfriend coming back and all the confusion of the paramedics and neighbours, they couldn't find anything.

(2003, Geoffrey Becker, Great American; COCA)

As a result, the formal structures of with the kids running around and with a new baby are (11) and (12) respectively:

(11) [C with [tp the kids [r 0 [VP [y running around]]]]]

(12) [C with [TP pro [T' 0 [VP [V' 0 [DP a new baby]]]]]]

The structural analysis of what in what with constructions in Felser & Britain's account makes use of Cinque's fine-grained system of functional heads (Cinque 1999), particularly the existence of Mood Evaluative in an elaborated C system. Drawing comparisons with expressions like what a beautiful day, and how come he's always late, Felser & Britain (2007: 122) analyse what as a factive operator which functions as specifier to a (null) evaluative head, an operator which is "neutral with respect to how exactly the proposition in its scope is evaluated'. In sum the formal structure of what with patterns in this model is as (13) below; what with structures are therefore treated as Evaluative Phrases:

(13) [EvalP what [Eval' 0 [CP [C' with [TP - ]]]]]

The neutrality of the operator with respect to the evaluation of the proposition in its scope is significant for an understanding of how the meaning of what with is interpreted by the hearer, and consequently, for how the semantics and pragmatics of such patterns should be associated with the formal structure above. In this minimalist account, the pragmatic meaning of particular instances of use (for example, whether a positive or a negative state characterises the proposition in the matrix clause) is determined contextually precisely because the abstract Evaluative head is neutral in this regard. In other words, the formal analysis provided by Felser & Britain (2007) gives a uniform account of the different complementation patterns of with and of the semantics of what, and leaves 'positive/negative' evaluation to the speaker/hearer's pragmatic knowledge. In the rest of this chapter, I explore some further issues regarding the nature of the synchronic variation, and the relationship between that synchronic variation and the diachronic evolution of what with patterns which warrant investigation, and which suggest a constructional account may capture both the idiosyncracies and the generalizations which Felser & Britain accurately reflect in their paper.

  • [1] Felser & Britain (2007), for purposes of their synchronic analysis, collapse the distinction between free adjuncts (which are subjectless) and absolutes (which have an overt subject).
  • [2] More recently, Goldberg (2006) has argued that a compositional form-meaning pairing may be considered a construction if it occurs sufficiently frequently. The fact that what with patterns occur relatively infrequently in corpora would suggest that they are better analysed as idiosyncratic constructions, following the earlier (Goldberg 1995) definition.
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