November 27, 2004

Once is cool, twice is queer

In an almost forgotten 1970 Sidney J. Furie movie about a pair of itinerant motorcycle racers, Little Fauss and Big Halsy, a character named Halsy Knox (Robert Redford) picks up not just one small-town girl but two, and spends a hot night with them both. In the morning his sidekick Little Fauss (Michael J. Pollard) is surprised to find him creeping away before the girls wake up, and preparing to leave town and move on. Fauss wonders why Halsy wouldn't want to stick around for more of the same. But Halsy's reply is negative: "Uh, uh! Once is cool; twice is queer."

Such is the harsh homophobic code by which the straight American male must live: you can engage in one threesome with a pair of girls who are happy to be naked in bed together, but hang around for a second and it is not just they who will be tagged with the savage judgment "queer", but you too.

I was surprised to find that such a striking line did not figure in any online databases of notable movie quotes. But as the eleventh of the 38 films Redford has so far made, and basically just one of several attempts to cash in on the success of Easy Rider, the film was pretty well forgotten along with the eminently forgettable 1970s.

This being Language Log, you will be wondering, I know, how I will now segue to a linguistic topic. I promise you, I will achieve this. You have only to read on.

What the Once-is-Cool-Twice-is-Queer (OICTIQ) principle is saying is that in the realm of human behavior a single event can be dismissed as sporadic, but you have to take it seriously when you find a pattern repeated twice or more, especially within a short space of time. I want to suggest that this is in fact a rather useful rule of thumb for linguists and philologists.

Philology first. Let's look at the text of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (are you following me? pay attention please):

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

This is quite hard to parse for a literate modern reader, because it begins with a noun phrase, a well-regulated militia, which turns out not to be the subject of the main clause. The sentence makes sense only if shall not be infringed is taken to be the predicate of the main clause, and the right of the people to keep and bear Arms is the main clause subject. But in that case there is a comma between subject and predicate. This is an error under standard modern punctuation principles (common though the error is in undergraduate writing). Is it just an isolated slip? Well, it happens that we have another chance to find out, without even leaving this one sentence. The sentence begins with what is traditionally known as an absolutive clausal adjunct — a gerund-participial clause functioning as an adjunct in clause structure. It is understood as if it began with since or because or in view of the fact that (notice that Our situation being hopeless, we surrendered means "Since our situation was hopeless, we surrendered). The subject is a well-regulated militia, and the predicate is being necessary to the security of a free State. But in that case there is, again, a comma between subject and predicate.

Well, once is cool, twice is queer. With two occurrences in a text this short, we are advised by the OICTIQ principle to assume that in the 18th century it was normal to place a comma between the subject and the predicate, a practice now regarded as ungrammatical. In translating this text into modern Standard English to divine its intent, we should therefore remove both the first comma and the third.

Now a topic in English syntax. There is plenty of evidence that even educated Americans often believe that there is something wrong with sentences ending in prepositions. Heaven knows why, after more than 700 years of such constructions, but they do. Suppose we were investigating the question of whether there was any support for such a view. How might we proceed?

Well, suppose we fix upon an author who is universally agreed to be a master of the craft, an admired author from at least a hundred years ago. Let's take Oscar Wilde, who died in 1900. And let's select a work of his that is above reproach as an instance of his finest work: "The Importance of Being Earnest", which has often been called the finest stage comedy in the English language. Now, who, of all the very upper-class characters in that play, has the most pompously and rigorously correct speech? There can only be one answer: Lady Bracknell. She really does speak like a book, and a tedious one. So, we start looking at preposition placements in the utterances of Lady Bracknell, and we rapidly find this:

LADY BRACKNELL: A very good age to be married at.

Could that conceivably be just an extraordinary slip-up on Wilde's part, a momentary lapse which, if someone had pointed it out to him, he would have immediately fix to make sure Lady Bracknell always sounded correct? We might imagine that this was so; but surely, not after we spot this second case:

LADY BRACKNELL: What did he die of?

No, once is cool, twice is queer. The second one should settle it: Lady Bracknell uses prepositions at ends of sentences whenever she damn well pleases. So should you. The notion that there is something slightly ugly or disreputable about them is just a myth — a myth, moreover, that is only believed by people who do not belong to the upper classes, and who have not studied the English language or paid real care and attention to its use in literature.

Of course, the OICTIQ principle is not a law. It is conceivable that someone who is prone to some sporadic error might commit it twice, even twice in one short piece of writing. The principle is merely methodological, a rule of thumb. It cautions the philologist or linguist to remember that dismissing one isolated inexplicable feature of a text as just a speech or writing error may be reasonable, but dismissing a second immediately becomes much less plausible when a second instance turns up hard on the heels of the first. The credibility of the linguist arguing that a sporadic slip is involved goes down, and the likelihood that an actual regularity of grammar is involved (possibly one that diverges from the grammar of the standard dialect of the language at issue) goes up.

The didactic Lady Bracknell basically states the principle herself. In a truly famous line, she says to the foundling Jack Worthing:

To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

What she means, of course, is that when it comes to children completely losing track of parents, once is cool but twice is queer.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 27, 2004 12:04 AM