To the store went Curious George

Curious George.  Picture source:
Curious George. Picture source:

I just sent this email to a coworker: The data sets are linked to from this article.  If you’re a native speaker of English, that sentence probably doesn’t look particularly unusual, and you probably agree that it could be paraphrased as There are some data sets.  There are links to the data sets.  The links are from. 

If you’re not a native speaker, though, you might well have stumbled on this sentence due to the sequence to from:

The data sets are linked to from this article.

How can to from possibly be meaningful?  It works because of one of the most important observations in the history of linguistics.  In a 1957 book, Verbal Behavior, the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner, the father of behaviorism, maintained that the syntax of English could be described by something called a finite state machine.  Finite state machines basically describe the possible sequences of something–words, in this case.  In a review that he wrote in 1959, Noam Chomsky poked a huge hole in Skinner’s claim.  He made the point that syntax is not about sequences, per se, at all–rather, it’s about structures.  The data sets are linked to from this article works because the sequence to from doesn’t figure into how that sentence is produced or interpreted.  Rather, the sentence is composed of a set of structures: [[The data sets] [[are [linked to] [from [this article]]]].  The sentence is not a sequence of words; to the extent that it’s a sequence of anything, it’s a sequence of phrases (syntactic structures), and it’s really not so much about the sequence of anything as it is about structure.

Within that sentence, linked to is what most people would call an idiom.  Rather than a preposition, it contains what English-language linguists call a particle.  (To see how it’s different from a preposition, consider these pairs of sentences:

  • Curious George went to the store.
  • To the store went Curious George.

No problem–both of those are perfectly acceptable English.  Now think about these:

  • Curious George linked to the blog post.
  •  * To the blog post linked Curious George.

The asterisk (*) is the linguist’s way of indicating that * To the blog post linked Curious George is completely unacceptable–you just can’t say that in English.  Why?  It’s because in go to, the to is a preposition.  In link to, it is a particle.  Particles and prepositions behave differently.  One of the ways in which they behave differently is that prepositions and their objects have some ability to move away from their verb, as in To the store went Curious George.  Particles can’t do that.  So, the native speaker of English has no problem with the to from in The data sets are linked to from this article–there really isn’t any other way that the native speaker can analyze it.  If you want more information on what I’ve called idioms (verb + particle), as well as other English constructions that use particles, see this article on the Linguistics Girl blog.

Chomsky went on to become the most important linguist of the 20th century.  Not the best linguist of the 20th century–but, unquestionably the most important linguist of the 20th century.  He redefined what the field was about, in almost every respect.  Remember this cartoon from a couple days ago?  It was about him.  I can tell you that only a vanishingly small number of linguists are the subjects of cartoons—we just don’t typically get very famous.  “Movement phenomena” like the examples that we saw in this post were a big part of the motivation for his theories, and there are movement phenomena in French, as well as in English.  We’ll see some movement phenomena in the formation of various types of questions, in particular.  But, more on that later–time for dinner.  For now, let’s just remind ourselves that the Curious George books were originally written in French.

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