September 24, 2004

Sleep your way to ocular health

I stopped by the eye care center for a routine check of my ocular acuity, and although by the end of the session my pupils had been chemically dilated so things were looking a bit strange to me, I had enough clarity of vision to notice the title of a pamphlet in a rack near the reception desk:


It did seem an interesting proposition. I have often heard of people who were said to have slept their way to the top, so I knew the idiom that was in play here. (Notice, by the way, that the quoted sentence is trademarked. They are clearly serious about the exact wording of what they are saying.) It seemed most interesting to me that there would be some way in which one could ensure 20/20 vision by similar means. I looked over again at my attractive fair-haired Slovakian oculist, who had told me nothing about this possibility while we were alone together in a darkened cubicle doing close-up tests of my gaze alignment and visual field sensitivity. Past generations tended to be warned about recreational sexual practices that would make you go blind. But now, I was given to understand, appropriately directed promiscuity could contribute to good ocular health? Clearly the liberal, experimental, polymorphously perverse Golden State where I am so happy to live had yet more to teach me about holistic health and wellness practices. I took a copy of the brochure.

Now, notice (may I draw your attention to some grammar, since this is Language Log?) that sleep is standardly an intransitive verb. It's like crawl, laugh, cry, snore, etc., in that it doesn't normally take a direct object noun phrase: you don't sleep something, you just sleep; you don't cry something, you just cry; and so on. Yet in the idiom sleep one's way to something, it does take a direct object noun phrase (underlined). Although the definition of an intransitive verb is one that can be used without an object either overt or understood, it is actually a fairly regular fact about English that most intransitive verbs, even the strongly intransitive ones that aren't the slightest bit ambivalent about their status, are capable of taking an object under one of at least two special conditions:

  1. Cognate object constructions. An object headed by a noun made from the same root as the verb itself, usually with some elaborating modifiers, can be used with lots of intransitive verbs: you can sleep the sleep of the dead; laugh a filthy laugh; and so on.
  2. Resultative constructions. You can laugh someone off the stage (bring about the result that they leave the stage, by means of laughter), cry yourself to sleep (bring about the result that you are asleep, by means of crying)... or sleep your way to something (bring about the result of finding the way to something, by means of sleeping — a euphemism, of course: we all know that to sleep your way to the top you have to do a lot more in the beds of the powerful and influential than just doze off beside them).

Now, you may be sleeping your way through this post, having already had more syntax that you bargained for. When you started out, you thought you were going to get something saucy about improving your vision simply by screwing, didn't you? So did I. But no, I'm afraid the pamphlet turned out to be a boring description of corneal refractive therapy™. It does involve going to bed, but the idea is that you put on specially shaped contact lenses that sort of squidge your corneal topography so by the morning your eyes will focus without your needing glasses or contacts or anything. You talk to your Eye Care Professional about it and he or she contacts Paragon Vision Sciences if it is the right therapy for you. No sexual activity is relevant at all. Sorry. Sweet dreams.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 24, 2004 01:21 AM