From Beijing to Tianjin is two hours by train.

diamondcutter

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1. The day between three and four thousand shells passed over our heads.
2. From Beijing to Tianjin is two hours by train.

Source: English Grammar, by Bo Bing, Kaiming Press, Beijing

Mr Bo Bing says the preposition phrase can be used as subject and the sentences above are two example sentences. This kind of usage is rare and I’d like to know if the sentences are natural.
 

diamondcutter

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Sorry, I made a mistake. For sentence #1, the first word should be "That" and I think there should be a comma after the word "day". The whole sentence is this.

That day, between three and four thousand shells passed over our heads.

Does it make sense now?
 

5jj

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it would be better with a comma after 'day'.
 

5jj

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By the way, the subject of that sentence is [between three and four thousand] shells, a noun phrase.
 

diamondcutter

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Hi, 5jj. Do you mean the sentence--That day, between three and four thousand shells passed over our heads--makes good sense?
 

5jj

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Yes, but it hasn't got a preposition phrase as a subject.
 

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What are 'shells' in this context?
 

Phaedrus

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By the way, the subject of that sentence is [between three and four thousand] shells, a noun phrase.

Isn't three elliptical for three thousand shells?

If so, the sentence subject would appear to be the between-phrase itself:

Between three [thousand shells] and four thousand shells passed overhead.
 

5jj

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If so, the sentence subject would appear to be the between-phrase itself:

Between three [thousand shells] and four thousand shells passed overhead.
Three thousand shells passed overhead.
Over three thousand shells passed overhead.
Well over three thousand shells passed overhead.
Between three (thousand) and four thousand shells passed overhead
.

In each case, the headword of the subject phrase is shells.
 

Phaedrus

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Three thousand shells passed overhead.
Over three thousand shells passed overhead.
Well over three thousand shells passed overhead.
Between three (thousand) and four thousand shells passed overhead
.

In each case, the headword of the subject phrase is shells.
It's interesting that in your example for "between" you did not type "shells" after "thousand" in the parenthetical.

How can you be certain that "between" is not the head of the subject? Bo Bing seems to think it is. :) I'm not sure myself.

"Over" can be analyzed as an adverb in "over three thousand," so the "over" examples don't prove anything about the "between" example.
 

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If you reduce the sentence ...:

That day, shells passed over our heads.

... it's obvious that shells is the sentence subject, and the phrase between three and four thousand is just a quantifier—determining shells, the head of the NP.
 

Phaedrus

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If you reduce the sentence ...:

That day, shells passed over our heads.

... it's obvious that shells is the sentence subject, and the phrase between three and four thousand is just a quantifier—determining shells, the head of the NP.

What gets me is that the "quantifier," as intuitively pleasing as your parsing is, is nested inside a prepositional phrase with two coordinated complements.

I did find a remark (no argument) in Huddleston and Pullum (2002) that such between-PPs can "function as determiners" within a noun phrase.

While I'm not sure I agree with the idea that they function as determiners, I did think of a way to demonstrate that they can occur within the noun phrase.

Once in a great while, we find a between-PP like this in a noun phrase introduced by the determiner the, and the NP can be modified by a relative clause:

(3) The between three (thousand) and four thousand shells which passed over our heads that day caused many of us to fear for our lives.

It seems clear that the relative clause in that sentence cannot be construed as modifying the PP; it must be deemed to modify the NP headed by shells.

It also seems clear that the head noun, shells, cannot grammatically be added after the first conjunct, thus proving that the PP is not the subject:

(3a) *The between three thousand shells and four thousand shells which passed over our heads that day caused many of us to fear for our lives.

My considered view is that the PP is a specifier within the subject NP, headed by shells, and the P (between) is complemented by two coordinated quantifiers.
 

5jj

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So, put more simply, you are agreeing with jutfrank and me that the preposition phrase is not the subject.
 

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My considered view is that the PP is a specifier within the subject NP, headed by shells, and the P (between) is complemented by two coordinated quantifiers.

What is a specifier? Would you explain briefly what specifiers do? Thank you.

I've been (over?)thinking about the meaning of the two sentences in the OP and I wonder if others would help me out. Let's say that the context of the discourse made it known that the speaker were talking about shells:

That day, between three and four thousand passed over our heads.

How would a grammarian analyse the sentence subject now? Is the PP now unequivocally considered as the subject? With a semantic analysis, it's obvious that the logical subject is still shells, despite its omission in the utterance, but what is the head of the grammatical subject—between or thousand?

As for the second sentence in the OP:

From Beijing to Tianjin is two hours by train.

Are you both happy to say that this sentence is both sensical and grammatical? I think I may have thought about it a bit too long, but it appears to me less and less acceptable. For proper interpretation, a listener would insert a missing logical element, such as:

[The journey] From Beijing to Tianjin is two hours by train.

Do you think that such an insertion is necessary? Or do you think that a PP can be considered as a logical subject of a verb? I'm not sure. Also, grammatically, I want to see a nominal subject, such as a dummy it in order for the sentence to be comfortably grammatical:

From Beijing to Tianjin it's two hours by train.

Do you think the addition of it gives the sentence a different meaning, however slight?
 

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I think I understand your point about the second sentence. The tendency is often, I think, to mentally fill in the missing element, and we don't even know it's missing. We are, I think, satisfied that we have it right, so we don't dwell on it.

As for the first sentence, if you know what the person is talking about that makes all the difference in the world. When I first read that one I didn't know what was meant by "shells" so that sentence was puzzling to me. Later, when I did understand the meaning of the sentence the word "shells" could be left out and it didn't bother me.
 

Phaedrus

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So, put more simply, you are agreeing with jutfrank and me that the preposition phrase is not the subject.
I never disagreed with you; I was simply skeptical. There is no need to oversimplify. This is a very complex matter for anyone interested in grammatical analysis.
 

Phaedrus

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What is a specifier? Would you explain briefly what specifiers do? Thank you.
A specifier is a structural position in the projection of a phrase in X-Bar syntax. It is the sister of the bar-level projection. They do various things in generative grammar, and what they do depends on the lexical category of the phrase.

The specifier of a Complementizer Phrase is often the docking point of wh-movement in relative clauses and root questions. Specifiers of Determiner Phrases (DPs) host possessors (minus the possessive morpheme). Thus, the DP the boy in the DP the boy's bicycle is the specifier of the DP 's bicycle. Even a Prepositional Phrase can have specifiers. The word right in phrases like right around the corner is commonly considered a specifier.

In mainstream generative grammar in the U.S., noun phrases usually occur inside determiner phrases, even when the determiner is null, as in Shells passed overhead. Since we have a non-null determiner in DPs like the between three (thousand) and four thousand shells which passed over our heads that day, it is clear that both the between phrase and the conjoined numeral/quantifier phrases it contains occur beneath the determiner in syntactic structure.

I wish to locate the numeral/quantifier phrase in the specifier position of the NP, (a) because that is an available position, and (b) because the numeral/quantifier phrase can occur within a prepositional phrase, as indeed it does in our example. I don't pretend to have discovered the perfect structure, but it does seem viable to me.

That day, between three and four thousand passed over our heads.

How would a grammarian analyse the sentence subject now?
The subject noun phrase simply has an elided head. Numerals licence noun-phrase ellipsis (e.g., How many marbles am I holding? - Two). Here is a tree I have made for the subject noun phrase of (1). I regard it as an approximation of the truth rather than as the truth itself. The specifier is the left sister of N', inhabited by the PP.

shells.JPG
 
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5jj

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The original question having been answered, I have moved this thread to the Linguistics forum.
 
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