January 25, 2004

When did you first hear this pattern?

The topic of snowclones is related to the more general topic of non-spontaneous fixed formulae in putatively spontaneous language. Andrew Pawley of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University has written a few papers about this, using the term speech formulas. I haven't found anything of his that is web-accessible, but his 1985 paper "On speech formulas and linguistic competence" in Lenguas Modernas 12: 84-104 would be one place to start.

One of the things that Andrew has noted in papers that I've read is that an astonishingly large number of the subordinate clauses in spoken conversation are in fact included in such speech formulas; in other words, ordinary people hardly ever make up novel subordinate clauses spontaneously when speaking. Dwight Bolinger also noted a long time ago (1975) that people remember whole chunks of language, even as they recognize how to chop those chunks up into individual lexical items; we store both the parts and the wholes, and retrieve them when we need them.

Snowclones, as defined here on Language Log, are simply an extension of this aspect of speech into journalistic writing and advertising copy. We're not quite as creative as the standard generativist dogma says we are.

I suspect that anyone who tries to make a comprehensive collection of snowclones is going to find that the collection is very large. Another one has just been pointed out to me in correspondence, this one by Anthony Hope. The pattern is this:

the X  that put the  Y   in(to)  Z

What reminded Anthony of it was an emailed advertisement from Virgin Atlantic:

Virgin Atlantic, the carrier that puts the "v" into "value" for money, brings you these truly tantalising treats - a veritable cornucopia of fabulous fares.

The pattern is not that common (there appear to be no examples of it in the Wall Street Journal corpus, for example), but it shares with nearly all snowclones the interesting property that although everyone knows immediately they have heard the pattern before, hardly anyone can remember where or when they first heard an instance of it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 25, 2004 12:20 PM