October 26, 2003

Up they turned

Ah, how devilishly subtle is the epistemology of grammatical investigation, I muttered to myself the other day, as I read a story about Northern Ireland in my favorite serious news magazine. Prime ministers Tony Blair (UK) and Bertie Ahern (Eire) were due to turn up arm in arm to be present at an encouraging announcement of agreement (it was to prove illusory) between Unionists and Sinn Fein, said The Economist (October 25th, 2003, p.52, column 1): "Downing Street duly announced it, and up the prime ministers turned."

But of course, that's not grammatical. Sometimes you have to refuse to trust the evidence of your own eyes, and this is one such time.

Turn up is one of the fossilized prepositional verbs of English, like come across meaning "encounter". You can say Let me know about anything that you come across but not *Let me know about anything across which you come. The come across sequence has to be in that order and untampered with. So does turn up in the sense of "arrive". You can normally switch prepositions like up to the front and kick subjects to the end, as in Off the prime ministers went, or Up the monkey climbed; but *Up the prime ministers turned is not grammatical English.

Yet it's not an error, either.

I'm a firm advocate of the use of corpora of real live text for evaluating the correctness of proposed grammars, but this case shows how careful you have to be. The Economist's writer is being jocular. Fooling about with the language.

How do I know? All I can tell you is that after fifty uninterrupted years of paying close attention to the use of a language you know a thing or two. Trust me. Sometimes what you see isn't what you ought to get.

So what we have here is a case of a sentence that is not grammatical and not a careless slip, yet it occurs in print in a carefully edited (and indeed, error-free) article in a serious publication. The naive empiricist here is going to say that I am cutting the empirical bottom out of the discipline of linguistics if I posit such a thing. But they're wrong. Relying on a corpus as if it were handed down by God is corpus fetishism, not linguistic science. When you're a descriptive grammarian like me, sometimes you have to trust the corpus and modify your intuitive idea of what is grammatical, and sometimes you have to use your intuitive knowledge of the language to ward off false impressions the corpus might give you. It's not a straightforward matter. Science never is.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 26, 2003 07:36 PM