The last duel in France: traces in syntax

The last duel in France leads to a discussion of syntactic theory, ’cause that’s how I roll.

Wanna watch the last duel in France?  Here you go.  Scroll down past the video for an excerpt from an article on the topic from Le monde and the definitions of some of the French vocabulary therein.

The article in Le monde: click here.  Some relevant vocabulary:

retrousser [+ sleeves or pant legs] : to roll up.  Elle avait un de mes pyjamas dont elle avait retroussé les manches.  (Camus, L’étranger)

l’hôtel particulier : like a château, but it’s in a city, versus being in the country, and it could just as well be owned by a bourgeois as an aristocrat–I think it’s actually more likely to have been owned by a bourgeois, at least in Paris.  Don’t quote me on this.

Dans un jardin ombragé par des arbustes bienveillants, enveloppé d’une douceur printanière, chemise blanche, col ouvert, manches retroussées, deux hommes, épée à la main, se jugent, se jaugent, puis, sur un signe de l’arbitre, croisent le fer. Quatre minutes plus tard, le combat cesse un des deux duellistes ayant été touché par deux fois au bras. Cette scène n’est extraite d’aucun roman ou film de cape et d’épée. Elle eut lieu il y a exactement cinquante ans, le 21 avril 1967, dans le parc d’un hôtel particulier de Neuilly-sur-Seine.

English notes

wanna: the written form of the contraction of want + to.  One of the interesting things about this contraction is that it is only possible in specific syntactic contexts, and is absolutely impossible in others.  This lets you distinguish between the following.  Suppose that the following situations exist:

  1. There is going to be a contest.  Whoever wins the contest will be awarded a horse.  There are a number of horses available, and the winner of the contest will be able to choose the horse that they will receive.
  2. There is going to be a horse race.  One of the horses will win the race.

In situation number 1, if you want to ask someone which of the horses they would choose were they to win the contest, you could ask the question in either of two ways.  The second one is more casual, but they are both completely acceptable from a linguistic point of view:

Which horse do you want to win?

Which horse do you wanna win?

In situation number 2, if you think that someone has a preference regarding the winner of the race, and you want to ask them which of the participating horses they hope will emerge the winner of the race, you only have one option:

Which horse do you want to win?

Google the quoted phrase “which horse do you wanna win” and you will get 5 results, all of them in Japanese.  WTF, you’re wondering…

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 10.21.41

What you’re seeing in the Google results is sentences that illustrate interesting syntactic phenomena.  Most of the literature on syntax is written about English syntax (blame Chomsky), mostly by (notoriously monolingual) anglophones, and the classic examples in the field are hence mostly in English.  (Actually, the only classic non-English examples that I can think of are in Swiss German–more on that another time, perhaps.)  The which horse do you want to/wanna win sentences are used in classic transformational-generative grammar to argue for the existence of something called a trace.  This is held to be something that is present in the structure of the sentence, but that is not observable–the claim is that you can’t “see” it, but it’s there.  What is that “it”?  The idea is that underlying those two sentences are two “deeper” forms:

  1. For situation 1 (there’s a contest, and the winner gets a horse): Which horse do you want to win [the horse]?
  2. For situation 2 (there’s a horse race, and one of the horses will win): Which horse do you want [the horse] to win?

(Linguists in the audience: yes, I am simplifying this for didactic purposes–no hate mail, please.)  In both cases, the bracketed [the horse] goes away; in the second case, the “trace” that is left behind blocks the contraction of want + to to wanna.

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 10.46.55


Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s obsessing about things like this that keeps Zipf from ever getting a second date.  …and you’re right, I imagine.


8 thoughts on “The last duel in France: traces in syntax”

  1. Hi About syntax studies there are André Martinet (, Gustave Guillaume ( and Lucien Tesnière ( who did not write and work in English .

    You’re right, after Napolepn III and Haussmann the hôtels particuliers belonged to dirty bourgeois, but of course before 1800 most of them only belonged to dukes, barons or earls of course .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You have NO idea how much I loved this …. those duelists, who they were, that flaky now to a past full of folly and sadly the future beckoning with greater Tom foolery than anyone could imagine when I was 6 years old as I was when that grainy footage and it’s insistent commentary was shot (stet punnable word) …. but what strikes me most is just how fortunate I am to be moving forward with the memory of living in an hôtel particulier …. you remind me to share the interior of my home and to give thanks to whatever I can thank that I have had this ludicrously beautiful interlude in life. Go softly my friend

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Stet–the most beautiful word in the English language. (A Mark Twain quote, if memory serves.)

      I am trying to adopt your attitude, rather than spending the next two months mourning the fact that at the end of April I’ll have to leave the country for 6 months…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I cannot imagine why you never get a second date. You must be fascinating to talk to ( and I’m not being facetious)
    Sadly, I’m off the market but if Trev winds me up one more time this week, I may well be back on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As one of my numerous exes once said to me: “Zipf, there are a lot of bad things that one could say about you, but ‘he doesn’t have anything interesting to say’ isn’t one of them.” Gotta compensate for being a fat old bald guy somehow…

      Good luck with Trev–I recently read a fascinating book by Ester Perel that might be helpful… at a minimum, it IS fascinating…

      Liked by 2 people

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