March 18, 2004

The backpack of it all

In a series of posts (here, here, here, here, here, here) we've discussed phrasal templates such as "X is the new Y" and "I for one welcome our new X overlords", for which Glen Whitman proposed the term snowclone. While exploring a strange usage of the verb worry ( here and here), I stumbled on a template that is (I think) unique in being composed entirely of closed-class words: "The X of it all". An article, a preposition, a slot for a singular noun, a pronoun, and a quantifier. A template without any specific noun, verb, adjective or adverb.

The pattern "The * of it all" gets 714,000 ghits (Google hits), and looking through the first few pages, we find that X can be quite a few different things:

absurdity, antiquity, beauty, beginning, bleakness, bottom, burden, centre/center, core, cost, crux, drama, end, economics, ethics, fatness, finality, fun, futility, gall, heart, horror, hub, hypocrisy, insanity, irony, key, love, madness, magic, meaning, midst, miracle, niceness, object, physics, pity, point, queerness, reality, rest, root, shame, sociality, sound, source, speed, splendor, start, stigma, stupidity, sum, thrill, weirdness, why, wonder

and so on -- there must be thousands of different substitutions within the 714,000 examples. Of course, not every kind of singular noun is equally likely to occur: outside of this template, backpack is about twice as frequent as broccoli, which in turn is about twice as frequent as crux, but "the crux of it all" gets 608 ghits, while "the broccoli of it all" gets 1, and "the backpack of it all" gets none. This follows from the meaning of the template, of course -- whatever exactly that is.

We can push the pattern further: "the * and * of it all" gets 16,300 ghits, including on the first few pages the substitutions:

action and challenge, audio and transcripts, bright and dark, chills and thrills, creativity and spontaneity, good and bad, groans and agony, heart and center, heart and soul, heart and source, highs and lows, immensity and beauty, ins and outs, joy and beauty, joy and glory, joy and malice, length and brutality, long and short, magic and wonder, merits and thruths, mess and brilliance, misery and pointlessness, nuts and bolts, prose and poetry, rhyme and rhythm, rise and fall, shock and awe, short and long, sound and fury, stress and tragedy, strong and weak, structure and symmetry, ups and downs, vagueness and remoteness, wisdom and glory, wonder and amazement

Again, there must be several thousand distinct strings in this set, and this is one of many patterns where there would be something to be learned about synonyms, antonyms and word associations by compiling the list.

There are only 336 ghits for "the * and * and * of it all":

lights and sounds and mystery, rush and excitement and newness, fun and thrill and joy, voices and emotion and spectacle, fun and excitement and newness, drama and sadness and heartache, etc.

Fans of Andrei Andreyevich Markov will be amused to note that 714000/16300 is approximately equal to 16300/336 (43.8 vs. 48.5).

As evidence that "the X of it all" is a kind of templatic phrase, consider how relatively rare it is to make any changes in the pattern (even though all the variants are grammatical and interpretable):

the point of it all
a point of it all
her point of it all
the points of it all
the point of some of it
no point of it all
the beauty of it all
a beauty of it all
her beauty of it all
the beauties of it all
the beauty of some of it
no beauty of it all

Compare "the account of it all" (7), "an account of it all" (127), which is not the same thing at all.

Construction grammar, yo. (And have you noticed that idiom creeping into general usage?)

Unless someone can provide a (compositional) pragmatic or semantic account for the facts here?

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 18, 2004 11:10 PM