When ‘irrelevant’ cannot replace ‘not relevant’

A recent short post on Language Log pointed drew attention to sentence (1):

‘The patch is irrelevant, but the events that follow are.’ (1)

Language Log » When “irrelevant” is not “not relevant” (upenn.edu)

Although the post didn’t say so explicitly, sentence (1) is clearly odd in some way. The title of the Language Log post hints at the reason and some of the commentators on the post discuss the reason more explicitly. The oddness lies in the relationship between the antecedent (irrelevant) and the adjective relevant—which seems to be present, albeit only tacitly, at the end of sentence (1).

Ellipsis

What we are dealing with here is often called ellipsis. Ellipsis is the omission of some material from a sentence if identical (or sufficiently similar) material is already present.

The material might be present earlier in the same sentence. But in some cases, that material might be present in the broader context, rather than in the same sentence: for example, responses to questions often omit material present in the question.

A lot of the research on ellipsis focuses on how similar the omitted material needs to be to the explicit statement of the material (the ‘antecedent’). For example:

  • must the form of the material be identical, or is just having the same meaning enough for ellipsis to be possible?
  • must the antecedent be a separate word, or can it be embedded in a larger word?  

The answers to questions like this may differ for different types of ellipsis and may differ for different types of language.

Ways to mean the same thing

As commentators on Language Log pointed out, the following sentences are not odd, although they mean the same as sentence (1):

  • The patch is not relevant, but the events that follow are. (2)
  • The patch is irrelevant, but the events that follow are not. (3)

Why aren’t sentences (2) and (3) odd? The reason is that the omitted item is identical to the antecedent in form, and not just in meaning. I show that by repeating sentences (2) and (3) as (2a) and (3a), with the omitted material struck through and the antecedent in bold and underlined:

(2a) The patch is not relevant, but the events that follow are relevant.

(3a) The patch is irrelevant, but the events that follow are not irrelevant.

Antecedent as a separate word

For sentence (1) to be acceptable, it would need to have structure (1a)

The patch is irrelevant, but the events that follow are relevant. (1a)

As we can see, sentence (1a) is very similar to structure (2a). The difference is:

  • in (1a), the antecedent relevant is present not separately, but only as a component of a larger word, where it is negated by the prefix ir-. English does not let us omit the second instance of relevant in this particular structure.
  • in (2a), the antecedent relevant is present as a separate word and it is negated by another separate word (the particle not). Thus, it is possible to omit the second instance of relevant.

The meaning of sentence (1) is perfectly clear. It means the same as sentence (2). Nevertheless, ellipsis is not possible in sentence (1) because the antecedent is embedded in a larger word, rather than being a separate word.  

More on ellipsis

There is a lot of discussion of ellipsis in The Oxford Handbook of Ellipsis, edited by Jeroen van Craenenbroeck and Tanja Temmerman (2019). Chapter 2 Ellipsis: Survey of Analytical Approaches, by Jason Merchant, contains a useful overview of approaches to determining when various forms of ellipsis are possible. And chapter 21 Predicate Ellipsis, by Lobke Aelbrecht and William Harwood, deals with ellipsis similar to the type discussed in this post.

Another good survey is in Ellipsis phenomena, by Jeroen van Craenenbroeck and Jason Merchant, in The Cambridge Handbook of Generative Syntax, edited by Marcel den Dikken (2013).

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