6

English that can often be dropped from a sentence.

(1) I think (that) she can come.
(2) I don't think (that) she can come.

In some negative constructions, complementiser dropping sounds marked.

A: Does Alex go to dance practice on Wednesdays?

(4) B: I know that he goes Fridays, but I don't know that he goes Wednesdays.
(5) B: *I know he goes Fridays, but I don't know he goes Wednesdays.

(6) I don't know that I can finish the report by next week...
(7) *I don't know I can finish the report by next week.

Some native speakers have told me that even (4) and (6) are a bit marked, and that they would have if or whether there, which would explain why (7) is unacceptable, as neither of those can be dropped. Gewgle has lots of examples of 'I don't know that I can do it', so it's definitely an attested construction even if it's not prescriptively grammatical. The examples below were accepted as grammatical by the native speakers I consulted, but all had the sense that they would say (10) more easily than (9).

(8) I hope (that) she kills them.

A: Are you seriously hoping to see bloodshed at your daughter's soccer match?

(9) B: I don't hope she kills them(, but a little bit of carnage might be nice).
(10) B: I don't hope that she kills them(, but a little bit of carnage might be nice).

Does anyone know of any reason why complementiser dropping would be rarer in negative contexts? Or are my three native speakers simply not representative?

  • To me 5 "I don't know that he goes Wednesdays" is perefectly grammatical but also somehow a different sense or usage of "that". I can't put my finger on why other than it can be replaced by "whether". Same goes for 7. 9 and 10 both sound marked to me in that it would only be said to clear confusion that I seem to hope (that) she kills them, and would probably be expressed another way. 10 sounds a bit better because an implicit "that" would make it sound just a bit odder than it already does. – hippietrail Oct 8 '11 at 13:24
  • Perhaps focus comes into pplay in your examples: there there are two things contrasted, and perhaps focus requires more syntactic structure or is an obstacle for the deletion of that. – imz -- Ivan Zakharyaschev Apr 2 '12 at 21:22
3

I think that the real issue here is that know is a factive verb. Compare (1)-(3) w/ (4)-(6)

(1) I don't suppose that Thomas will come. / I don't suppose Thomas will come.
(2) I don't imagine that Thomas will come. / I don't imagine Thomas will come.
(3) I don't reckon that Thomas will come. / I don't reckon Thomas will come.
(4) I didn't learn that Thomas will come. / ??I didn't learn Thomas will come.
(5) I didn't discover that Thomas will come. / ??I didn't discover Thomas will come.
(6) I didn't find out that Thomas will come. / ??I didn't find out Thomas will come.

(1)--(3) are ambiguous between a reading where the negation has scope over the matrix verb + complement clause and a reading where it has scope only over the complement clause, by the Gricean maxim of quantity I am supposing. (4)--(6), on the other hand, have only one reading, i.e. "It's not the case that I learned that Thomas will come." It seems the generalization to make is that the dropped complement versions tilt heavily towards the reading that is blocked off by factive verbs. But there are exceptions, like (7), so this cannot be an airtight account.

(7) I didn't realize that Thomas will come. / I didn't realize Thomas will come.

1

I disagree with the general suggestion that complementisers are less likely to be dropped with a negative verb.

With "think" and "believe", it is quite normal to drop the complementiser:

I don't think he knows.

I don't believe they are coming.

Even with "know", there are certainly examples which seem quite normal to my ears:

I didn't know you wanted it!

I agree that sometimes with "know" the omission is awkward, and I suspect that, as hippietrail suggests, a doubt as to whether "that" or "whether" was omitted is behind this: though in fact, "whether" cannot be omitted. But I don't know why this is different from the examples I give above.

  • 'With "think" and "believe", it is quite normal to drop the complementiser'--I have already acknowledged this with examples (1) and (2). 'Even with "know", there are certainly examples which seem quite normal to my ears'--I have already acknowledged this. From the original post: 'In some negative constructions, complementiser dropping sounds marked.' 'I agree that sometimes with "know" the omission is awkward, and I suspect that, as hippietrail suggests, a doubt as to whether "that" or "whether" was omitted is behind this'--I don't understand this sentence. – Raphaël Oct 12 '11 at 10:55
  • @Raphaël: I meant to suggest that the awkwardness that sometimes occurs with "not know" might be because either of two semantically different complementisers ("that" and "whether/if") could occur in the positive sentence. But it was only a passing thought, and the fact that actually "whether" cannot be dropped weakens it further. – Colin Fine Oct 13 '11 at 11:48

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