I am coming up with constituency tests to distinguish between complements and adjuncts. But I was thrown off by the fact that I can coordinate "the jam to Pam on a holiday" as if it is a constituent. But "to Pam" and "on a holiday" should be adjuncts of the verb phrase, so they shouldn't form a phrase with "the jam" without also including "sold".

  • They sold [the jam to Pam on a holiday] and [the flan to Don on a Monday].

I suppose the adjuncts could've been adjoined to the verbal projection before the verb moved, but I wanted to see what other analyses people gave, if mine was even correct.

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    They are separate constituents: "They sold [the jam] [to Pam] [on holiday]". "The jam" is direct object and the PP "to Pam" is second complement of "sold". The PP "on holiday" is an adjunct within the VP – BillJ Dec 8 '17 at 9:54
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    Your analysis is wrong, this is an example of ellipsis (it’s a coordination of two clauses but from the latter one the verb’s left out). – Atamiri Dec 8 '17 at 13:42
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    I see it differently -- as a nonce-constituent coordination. Each coordinate consists of a direct object followed by two PPs. I don't see the second coordinate as being a reduced clause. – BillJ Dec 8 '17 at 14:19
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    There is a coordination. The sequences the jam to Pam on a holiday and the flan to Don on a Monday form the bare coordinates, and by virtue of that they are constituents. The term 'nonce-constituent' is intended to convey, therefore, that the constituent status is conferred on the sequence simply by the coordination relation -- they are constituents for the nonce as it were, just by virtue of the coordination. It's called 'right' nonce-constituent coordination because the coordinates follow the head element on which the component parts are dependent, in this case sold. – BillJ Dec 8 '17 at 14:36
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    @BillJ: Nonce-constituent is an interesting term; who came up with it? I.e, is there a source in the literature, or did you coin it? – jlawler Dec 8 '17 at 15:19

The question is concerned with what many call nonconstituent coordination and hence abbreviate as NCC. Certainly there are other terms denoting the phenomena as pointed out in the comments. In the literature, such instances of coordination were, I believe, first discussed in an article in Language by Richard Hudson in 1976. Anyone who has ever worked on coordination has come across them and had to offer some sort of account of how it is possible for such nonconstituent strings to be coordinated.

The claim that such instances of coordination involve ellipsis is refuted by examples like the next ones:

(1a) We gave nobody [chocolates today] and [flowers yesterday].

(1b) We [gave nobody chocolates today] and [gave nobody flowers yesterday].

If ellipsis were involved in (1a) in terms of an elided gave nobody, then (1a) should have the same meaning as (1b) in which nothing has been elided. But that is not the case, for (1a) clearly has a different reading from (1b). The negation in nobody in (1a) scopes over the entire coordinate structure, whereas in (1b), the negation in each nobody only scopes over the conjunct that immediately contains it.

Another indication that ellipsis is not involved in such cases is that the intonation contour is normal. There is no special contour of the sort associated with right node raising (RNR, e.g. You like, but I dislike, writing syntax papers) which can more convincingly be viewed as involving some form of ellipsis.

One important conclusion I think should be drawn from the existence of such instances of nonconstituent coordination is that coordination is not a good test for identifying constituents, despite the fact that it is widely used as such. It suggests that far too many strings are constituents, strings that other tests do not verify as constituents. It is very much unlike most other tests for constituents in this regard.

To answer the question as directly as possible, the reason why such strings can be coordinated is that coordination operates on parallel strings, whereby these strings need not be constituents. As long as the strings are appropriately parallel, they can be coordinated. In a dependency grammar framework, strings are appropriately parallel if they contain matching roots, i.e. words that are not dominated by any other words in their conjunct. I can elaborate further and provide references if anyone is interested. Contact me at tjo3ya@yahoo.com.


As @BillJ said in the comments above, one can analyze this example as a case of non-constituent coordination. Non-constituent coordination occurs when two sequences can be coordinated, giving evidence that they are constituents, even though they fail all (or almost all) other constituent tests.

This example reinforces the point that one should always perform multiple constituency tests and remember that each successful test only provides more evidence for the claim that the tested sequence is a constituent.

It should also be noted that there are other analyses of similar examples e.g. double-object constructions:

(1) They gave the butter to the Medici.

Here, it is increasingly common to analyze [the butter to the Medici] as an actual constituent (as opposed to a nonce-constituent) from which the verb moved out of, and into the vP above the VP. This analysis is not hindered by the possibility of attaching adjuncts like [on a holiday] to [the butter to the Medici] because [the butter to the Medici] is already posited to be a phrase, namely VP.

  • Some of the jargon here is baffling to me, so I will inject that direct objects can just as well be evaluated as adverbials with an elided case marker, and all coordinations can be stored as separate clauses, or coordinated noun phrases can be stored as supersets. Lumping objects and adverbials as a constituent doesn't help me store them any better than before. – amI Feb 7 '18 at 21:15

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