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Stephen Colbert wrote a book entitled “I Am America (And So Can You!)”. As discussed in a question on English Language and Usage, the title is an intentionally strange way of saying "I am America, and you can [be America] too", as a parody of self-help book titles.

The title appears to be well-formed; compare with the structurally identical yet acceptable “I run marathons (And So Can You!)”. But to a native speaker it's obviously ungrammatical, and even difficult to parse (the "so" feels like it is lacking a referent). So descriptively speaking, English clearly forbids using "be America" as the referent of "so". What rule does it violate, from a theoretical point of view?

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I'm not a native speaker, but if it was "“I can be America (And So Can You!)”, it would be right, right? –  Alenanno May 24 '12 at 7:54
    
It strikes me as grammatical, but unacceptable, but I could be wrong. I think the issue is the verb "be." It feels like present progressive, while "so" feels like it requires simple present ("I am running" vs. "I run"). –  Adele C May 24 '12 at 12:48
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Interesting. A lot of small changes will make it grammatical: "I am America, and so are you." "I can be America, and so can you." "I love America, and so can you." "I am America, and you can be too." ... if you change "am" to any other (transitive) verb, it becomes grammatical. What's so special about "be"? –  Qwertie May 24 '12 at 20:58
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@Qwertie well, many things are special about "be", so I guess the question is which of those is the one causing this peculiarity... I'm guessing it has to do with the fact that "be" is the only non-auxiliary verb (non-auxiliary in this usage) which doesn't use "do" in questions/negative/so-constructions. I like America and so do you, I miss America and so do you. I am America and so are you. –  dainichi May 25 '12 at 0:29
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This seems to me to highlight one of the differences in English between "true verbs" and the copula, which seems like a verb on the surface, but as you investigate, it has many differences. –  hippietrail May 30 '12 at 11:56

1 Answer 1

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Obviously, Colbert wanted to preserve the "and so can you" part, to achieve the desired effect.

At first, I posted an answer but I decided to completely rewrite it. I don’t pretend to know all relevant literature on VPE (verb phrase ellipsis) in depth, so what I’m going to post below is mostly based on Chapter 17, written by Stirling and Huddleston, in the Cambridge grammar of the English language:

There are two conflicting rules there. On the one hand, as Stirling and Huddleston argue, “the VP following so is almost invariably reduced” (p. 1539):

*Jill will certainly notice the mistake, and so will Max notice it.
Jill will certainly notice the mistake, and so will Max.

However, a full VP is sometimes possible, as in:

This forecast is admittedly way above the estimate of most analysts in several recent surveys. But so is reality generally far from off the consensus.

However, the most important thing about the "and so AUX Subj" construction is that anaphoric so indicates likeness between the two clauses.

On the other hand, we have a stranded auxiliary (can). Only auxiliary verbs can be stranded. In parallel constructions like in your example, you need to use a matching auxiliary verb in the second clause:

  1. I was tired, and so were the others.
  2. I am American, and so are you.
  3. Loiuse can dance beautifully, and so can her sister.
  4. Jill will certainly notice the mistake, and so will Max.
  5. "I've lost their address." "So have I."

(I borrowed some of the examples above from Swan 2005).

This is called do-support, and it works with lexical verbs. With the verb "be" and modal verbs you don't need "do"; there are some exceptions but they are irrelevant to this discussion, though. If there is another auxiliary already (like in "have/has/had+pp"), you don't need do, either.

Now, Stirling and Huddleston argue that the verbs “be” and “have” tend to resist ellipsis when there are inflectional differences. In other words, in the following examples you can’t omit the verbs “be” or “have” – it would lead to unacceptable or very marginal results:

Kim was interrogated yesterday and is being again today.
*Kim was interrogated yesterday and is again today.

He has been sick several times, and doubtless will be again.
*He has been sick several times, and doubtless will again.

That's why Arnold Zwicky finds the following sentence marginally acceptable (sounds better than Colbert's title of the book):

[??] I am America, and so can you be.

Why would it be?

Huddleston 2002 argues that there are two types of the stranded auxiliary - discourse-old and discourse-new (p. 99).

Kim has seen the report and I think Pat has too. [old-verb stranding]

I'll help you if I can. [new-verb stranding]

It's called discourse-old because the missing material occurs in the preceding context (seen the report).

Huddleston also argues that new-verb stranding has a slightly narrow rage of possibilities:

*I didn't bother to phone the results to her because I knew Kim was.

This sentence is ungrammatical (or, rather, infelicitous) because it's virtually impossible to recover "Kim was" from the previous context. "Kim was what?"

To conclude, a couple of words on the construction, "and so AUX Subj". Stirling and Huddleston argue that this construction is restricted to positive clauses:

Jill will certainly notice the mistake, and so will Max.
*Jill won't notice the mistake, and so won't Max.

On the other hand, the subject in the "and so AUX Subj" must be different from the subject in the preceding clause:

*Jill can play the piano, and so can she sing.
Jill can play the piano, and so can Max.

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But why is "Louise dances beautifully, and so can her sister" grammatical while "Louise is crazy, and so can her sister" and "Louise is crazy, and so does her sister" are not? –  Qwertie May 24 '12 at 21:08
    
Because of the auxiliary verb, like I said in my answer. "*Louise is crazy, and so can her sister crazy" doesn't make sense. The auxiliary here is "is" => Louise is crazy, and so is her sister. –  Alex B. May 24 '12 at 21:26
    
@Qwertie, the easiest way to determine an auxiliary verb is to make a yes/no question. e.g. Does Louise dance beautifully? Is Louise crazy? –  Alex B. May 24 '12 at 21:50
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@AlexB. I used the blockquotes to highlight the examples and removed most of the italics/bold thing because then it gets too annoying/confusing to read it. My suggestion is to use it wisely otherwise it will be counterproductive. It's like those who underline every single word when studying and not just the important stuff. :) –  Alenanno May 25 '12 at 18:18
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@Alenanno, thanks! –  Alex B. May 25 '12 at 18:24

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