May 04, 2004

Editor impresses

Kyrie O'Connor, deputy managing editor for features at the Houston Chronicle, has started publishing her daily memos to her staff as a weblog. In her May 4th MeMo, she remarks that "the idea of a 'linguist joke' is inherently appealing", thus endearing herself to linguists everywhere. After quick notes on "Zebra butt", repairman excuses and Lewis Black, she closes with this "Grammatical cranky rant du jour":

When did it become cooler to be an intransitive verb than a transitive verb? Was it right around the same time men stopped wearing socks with loafers? You know what I mean -- "The shiraz impresses". Meaning it impresses the writer, formerly known as "me". It's an implied "me". It irritates.

I'm impressed.

I stopped wearing loafers, with or without socks, early in my freshman year in college, so I won't even try to comment on the fashion coincidence. But as for the rest of it, I do know exactly what she means.

I'm not sure her analysis is entirely right, though. The construction "the shiraz impresses" seems to be elliptical, with an implied object complement that is not expressed, rather than being a genuinely intransitive verb. O'Connor gives both analyses (intransitive verb and ellipsis of the object), and I think that the second one is probably right and the first one is probably not. Cases similar to this have been called "null complement anaphora" (NCA) in the linguistics literature, but no one (as far as I know) has ever pointed out the snooty tone that such examples sometimes exhibit.

In particular, "X impresses" has definitely become part of winespeak:

(link) While brown is not necessarily the top colour this wine really impresses.
(link) The wine impresses through its full and alluring taste with a very pleasant smell that reminds of the plum, cherry or wild fruits savours, being completed by fine tannins.
(link) This harmonious wine impresses as much for its elegance as for its intense flavors.

In fact, on the first two pages of Google listings for the pattern {wine impresses}, 18 of 19 examples of the verb form impresses are examples of NCA, leaving out the direct object. In contrast, searching for just plain {impresses} has only 10 of 20 with that pattern, and {football impresses} has only 5.

I think that Ms. O'Connor is also slightly wrong about what the implied antecedent for the unexpressed object is. Her suggestion is that it's "the writer, formerly known as 'me'". But part of the reason that NCA fits winespeak so well is that the unexpressed object connects us, through the writer, to some ethereally sensed set of connoisseurs. What better way to communicate that the impressed experiencers are Those Whose Opinions Matter than by leaving it all implicit?

Despite this, the winespeak use of Null Complement Anaphora is somewhat verb-specific. With "persuades", for example, we do have

(link) ... complete, spicy, sensitive, but with racy acid as backbone, this wine persuades with reliable quality.

but that's the only example of null complement anaphora in the first 20 Google hits for {wine persuades}.

The pattern is also tense-linked to some extent. Out of the first 20 hits for the pattern "wine impressed", 5 were examples of NCA, while 12 had an overt object, and 3 were irrelevant structures of other kinds:

(link) The barrel-sample of this wine impressed us as being much like the '84 only more so.
(link) Lighter than Chardonnay, this wine impressed both Eric and Katie.

(link) As well as a great frog motif on top of the cork, this wine impressed with its delicate, sweaty, fresh nose giving way to green apples, freesias and a creamy butteriness with good acidity.
(link) Sadly, neither the dessert nor the wine impressed.

By the way, while we're indulging ourselves, shouldn't Ms. O'Connor's heading really have been "cranky grammatical rant du jour", not "grammatical cranky rant du jour"? Still, her brief paragraph is much more insightful than the many grammatically uninformed cranky rants du jour that I've read over the past few weeks, and so I'm not complaining a bit.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 4, 2004 07:15 PM