Over on Language Log, Geoff Pullum argues that this sentence is “clearly ungrammatical”:
- This accounts for the fact that family sizes of seven, eight, or nine children were common in the nineteenth century but rare today.
– he argues that it doesn’t conform to the syntactic conditions on ellipsis (ie when you supply “were”, you end up with “family sizes of seven … were rare today”, which is illegitimate in English). The facts of syntax, he says, demand that when you have sentences of the form Verb1 + Adjective-phrase + Coordinator + Verb2 + Adjective-phrase, then Verb1 and Verb2 must share the same tense inflection (or both must be untensed) in order for the ellipsis to be possible (ie Verb + Adjective-phrase + Coordinator + Adjective-phrase).
There are several serious commenters expressing reluctance to accept this – and I hate to say it, but I can’t help agreeing. Shimon Edelman says,
The ontological status of “facts of syntax” (or grammaticality that’s independent from acceptability) is the same as that of the tooth fairy: there is no independent empirical evidence for it, and phenomena attributed to it can be better explained by other means.
It’s also reminiscent of this discussion we had earlier in a more phonology-oriented context:
As John Cowan says, “what people (as opposed to parsers) make when they react to natural-language utterances are not grammaticality judgements but acceptability judgements.”
Also a heads-up: I’ll be away from the computer all day tomorrow, and probably for most of Wednesday as well.