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A relative clause there’ll have to be some thinking over

Des problèmes avec une phrase relative en anglais.

So I was reading about the sad and horrifying loyalist#[1] riots that took place in Belfast over the weekend. Until I stumbled over a sentence, a quote of Ian Paisley.

In the Guardian, the construction that puzzled me looks like this (emphasis mine):

  • Then tension hit a higher notch when Ian Paisley, the now undisputed leader of unionism, warned that the Whiterock parade could prove “the spark which kindles a fire there could be no putting out“.

So there’s a relative clause with a zero relative pronoun embedded in a relative clause introduced by which. The part that I’m unsure about is the innermost one, a fire there could be no putting out: a dummy subject (”there”) and an absent object of “putting out” (the zero relative pronoun). To me, it sounds as if there was something missing. But what?

Looking at other news sources, I found that most have the same version as the Guardian (the BBC, the Times …), at least for the part of Mr Paisley’s quote that is between quotation marks. There’s one exception, though:

  • “It could be a spark that would kindle a fire that there’ll be no putting out,” he said. (unison.ie)

“Would kindle” instead of “kindles” and “there’ll be” instead of “there could be”, and most notably the relative pronoun that.

Still, I feel quite confused about what happens if a relative clause, in particular one with a zero relative pronoun that is the argument of a verbal particle / preposition, collides with a dummy subject in the construction there is.

[Isn’t syntax a really confusing discipline? The more I look into it, the less I understand. Maybe a better-oiled reader can put me on the right track? Pretty please?]

[1]: I debated with myself whether I should put quotation marks around “loyalist”. But as it is one of the accepted terms for the Protestant faction in Northern Ireland, this wouldn’t be appropriate. Still, “loyalist” sounds cruelly ironic for people in shoot-outs and pitched battles with the police.

5 comment(s) for 'A relative clause there’ll have to be some thinking over'

  1. (Comment, 2005-09-14 10:58 )

    I suppose it could be argued that you should write: There can be no putting out of the fire, and then the construction ‘a fire there’ll be no putting out of’ doesn’t really work because it sounds ugly.

  2. (Comment, 2005-09-14 12:01 )
    #2 — chris

    Interesting. I was of course baiting the native speakers, but for myself I’d thought of a similar route: “a fire there could be no putting out for”; i.e. to link back the “put out” with its referential argument “a fire”.

  3. (Comment, 2005-09-14 21:05 )

    Not sure whether this is any help, but I assume - knowing it to be Paisley! - that he’s adapting the words of Hugh Latimer here. I thought these included the phrase ‘no putting out’ though looking at the Wiki page, it looks as if I mis-remembered unless there’s yet another version?

  4. (Comment, 2005-09-15 07:42 )

    There are certainly a lot of “wrong”-looking relative clauses that arise from this. For instance (some adapted from google hits):

    people who there might be some hope for
    cars which there is doubt about how reliable they are
    books which there aren’t reviews of
    vegetables that there are ways of boiling them
    the person who there’s someone punching (him)

    You may have varying degrees of acceptabliity for each of these guys (especially the ones with resumptive pronouns).

    But I think in the sentences you first brought up we’ve got a different beast - note that they’e in the negative. In English we’ve got this construction to say that something is hopeless, or impossible, namely “there be no VPing,” as in “there’s no killing superman,” “there’s no understanding the tax code,” and “there’s just no accounting for taste.” IOW, this isn’t the normal there-construction that introduces discourse entities (e.g., there’s a man sitting over there, there’s problems in your analysis). I don’t think you can say “a fire there’s putting out” to mean ‘a fire which can be put out,’ or if so then it’s sort of a marginal example that the speaker created in conscious opposition to the more standard version with the negative.

    It could be that because this construction is so much at home on the utterance level that some people are just uncomfortable seeing it subordinated. Since you usually don’t see the missing argument, something seems missing. I’ll bet you also get a lot of resumptive pronouns, like “a fire that there’s no putting it out.”

    Well, that’s just my $.02

  5. (Comment, 2005-09-27 15:53 )

    I’d vote for a “the spark which kindles a fire of which there could be no putting out,” double-enclosure and all.