Stopping to Consider Language Acquisition

As is my wont, when I began reading Interpreting Imperatives by Magdalena Kaufmann (now at the University of Connecticut) I started with a part that many would probably skip: the preface. There are all sorts of things to be learned from a preface to a book in one’s own field. The author is the former Magdalena Schwager, who did her Ph.D. at Frankfurt and moved on to Göttingen, and is now married to Stefan Kaufmann of Northwestern. One of her mentors was Ede Zimmermann. And then suddenly I stopped in surprise when I saw what she said about the respected German linguist Arnim von Stechow, her first semantics teacher:

Arnim von Stechow … has never stopped to present me with thought provoking questions.

The uncaring swine; he couldn’t even be bothered to stop by her office to give her a few provocative questions? And then I realized that she intended to express gratitude.

Don’t imagine for one moment that what I’m doing here is dinging Professor Kaufmann for a grammar slip (as you will see, my point is quite the opposite). Her English is excellent: clear, precise, nicely composed, close to flawless. She had simply stumbled on a nasty little hidden trap.

The verbs cease and stop are almost synonymous verbs of discontinuation in many of their uses, but while cease takes infinitival complements as well as gerund-participial complements (so both The battery ceased to function and The battery ceased functioning mean “The battery commenced not functioning after previously having functioned”), stop takes only gerund-participial complements (so we get The battery stopped functioning but not *The battery stopped to function).

Another difference interacts with this: Stop with no complement can simply mean “discontinue moving.” It is therefore perfectly possible for it to be followed by an infinitival clause functioning as an adjunct of purpose or reason. You should stop to smell the roses makes a statement in favor of rose-smelling, not against it: It cannot mean “You should stop smelling the roses”; it can only mean “You should discontinue moving, with the purpose of smelling the roses.”

(I did a quick check on my intuition: all 24 instances of stopped to X in the 50 million words of the standard Wall Street Journal corpus have the meaning “discontinue moving, in order to X”.)

Magdalena Kaufmann could have said what she wanted to say with cease, using the construction she wanted to use: Arnim von Stechow has never ceased to present me with thought-provoking questions. She could also have used stop, with a gerund-participle: Arnim von Stechow has never stopped presenting me with thought-provoking questions. Her bad call was to opt for stop with an infinitival complement, which English syntax happens, arbitrarily, not to permit.

I have no idea how a native speaker of German learning English can be expected to detect that one of two almost-synonyms forbids the following infinitival clause from being interpreted as a complement (i.e., from denoting the activity that is discontinued), while the other permits it.

Indeed, I have no idea how you or I learned it when we were toddlers. Nobody explains to kids which verbs take which types of complements. Hardly anyone has an adequate conscious grasp of the necessary facts. There are thousands of verbs, and at least half a dozen very different kinds of complement clause. The crucial fact here is recorded in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language on Page 1228 (note that cease is on the list in example display [10], but stop is not). But The Cambridge Grammar runs to over 1,750 pages excluding end matter. Nobody is explicitly taught everything it covers. A huge majority of what they learn is acquired through some natural process of absorption, on the basis of simply observing people say things to each other (and, after a certain point, perhaps also reading things that people have written down). We don’t understand this process.

The astonishing thing to me is not that a highly intelligent semantics Ph.D. should have fallen into the stop/cease trap. The astonishing thing is that foreign adults like Professor Kaufmann learn English so well and make so few mistakes.

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