October 20, 2004

Am I boring, or are you?

Language Hat was taken aback -- linguistically -- by a phrase in Scott Anderson's 10/17 NYT Magazine piece on Darfur:

Pulling a stack of business cards from the pocket of his white robe, he read off a dizzying list of initials — W.H.O., W.F.P., I.R.C. — before boring of the task and setting them aside.

The Hat found this flat-out ungrammatical, and I agree with him. But as he says, "if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's not to trust my own judgments about acceptability." Comments on Hat's post were mixed, suggesting that Anderson is not alone.

There are two different oddities here. The first one is using "to bore" to mean "to become weary by lack of interest", and the second one is using "of" rather than "with" or "by" to express the wearying entity.

First things first. The usual meaning for the verb to bore is "to cause to become weary by lack of interest." That is, if I'm going on and on about stuff that has no interest at all to you, you would usually say that I'm boring, not that you are. At least that's I think, and what Hat thinks. It's also what all the dictionaries that I've consulted say:

OED: trans. To weary by tedious conversation or simply by the failure to be interesting.
AHD: To make weary by being dull, repetitive, or tedious: The movie bored us.
Encarta: transitive verb / make somebody uninterested: to make somebody lose interest and so feel tired and annoyed / He bored us stiff with a detailed explanation of the itinerary for his vacation.

However, there's a general pattern in English of pairs of inchoative and causative meanings for verbs:

The water boiled / Kim boiled the water
The trees blew down / The wind blew down the trees
The wax melted / The heat melted the wax
The coffee spilled / I spilled the coffee

So it's not totally incoherent to invent an inchoative partner for the normal causative bore:

?The audience bored ← The lecture bored the audience

(where "the audience bored" is supposed to mean "the audience became bored").

The second problem is using "of" to express the cause of boredom. I'd naturally say or write "We were starting to get bored with the game", not "?We were starting to get bored of the game" (much less "we were boring of the game"!). However, we've found several other cases where unexpected prepositions sneak in, including things like "eligible of" instead of "eligible for".

The pattern "he|she|they|I|we bored of" gets 650 hits from Google, many of the right kind:

But when he bored of the indulgences of royal life, Gautama wandered into the world in search of understanding.
bored of the constraints of producing work for advertising, and he wanted to concentrate on producing paintings specifically with the intent of high quality.
We bored of it quickly.

A small pod of what appeared to be bottlenose dolphins accompanied the Midway for a little while on the way into Laysan until they bored of the pace of the ship...

However, "he|she|they|I|we got bored with" gets 15,600 hits, and "he|she|they|I|we became bored with" gets 2,770. And of the 650 "he|she|they|I|we bored of " hits, about 60% (on a sampling basis) are instance of "be bored of" (either of the form "are we bored of it yet?", or examples like "he's bored of that now", where Google ignores the 's).

So we've got 15,600+2,700 = 18,300, compared to .4*650 = 260, or 18300/260 = 70 to 1 against Anderson and inchoative bore.

And the pattern "he|she|they|I|we was|were boring of" gets only 78 hits, most of which are either irrelevant:

In fact, I might even go as far as saying they were boring. Of course, I didn't see much of them.

or seriously unidiomatic:

So after Tallika appeared I was tired, then we were waiting about one hour, I was boring of wait and then ecstasy of gold started...

There are a small number of real Andersonisms:

Hi, It is a long time now that I was boring of typing my block information header each time I add a new Function or Method.
Truth was she was boring of their conversation and needed an escape.
Rich and I were boring of our game of 'voices' as it was now called and so he quickly fixed his basketball hoop to the garage and we were playing one-on-one..

In fact, those three are all the half-way convincing ones that I could find. Google has two more cases of "before boring of", and eight relevant and reasonably idiomatic examples of "after boring of". So inchoative boring is even rarer than inchoative bore, and I conclude that Anderson is way out on the tail of a pattern of morphosyntactic variation. The surprising thing is that so many of Hat's commenters thought "before boring of the task" is fine, or at least acceptable. Either they're a suggestible bunch, or they're out there on the bleeding edge too...

The real story in Darfur, of course, is not the unacceptability of Scott Anderson's syntactic frame for boring, but the unacceptability of the Sudanese government's actions, and the cowardice and hypocrisy of the international community's reactions .

[Update: as several people have pointed out in email, tire and weary provides an obvious basis for analogy, since they have the causative/inchoative alternation already, as well as the use of "of" -- "long classes tire me", "I'm tiring of these battles".

Still, there's surprisingly little evidence of these analogies in operation out there on the internets. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 20, 2004 06:44 PM