February 09, 2005

Nowhere to really else go

Language Hat quotes a TV announcer saying (about Tom Brady's pass to David Givens) that "He had nowhere to really else go", and observes:

That is perhaps the single most astonishing sentence I've heard a native speaker of English utter (in terms of grammaticality, I hasten to add); it's so bizarre I had to retype it because I automatically moved the "really" as I was copying it.

After a bit more discussion, he adds "I'd love to hear one of the Language Log mavens or other linguabloggers try to account for how it got there", observing that "[t]his is the kind of thing that makes me very skeptical of efforts to derive sentences from little NP-VP nodules that get lexical items inserted before being extruded from the assembly line and out of our mouths".

Well, time is short this afternoon -- and you'll pay for that "maven" dig, Hat -- but as always, I'm happy to oblige.

In this case, I suspect that the explanation has more to do the psychological complexities of real-time composition than with the logic of grammar, generative or otherwise. In other words, it was a speech error.

1. Starting point #1: "nothing else", "no one else", "nowhere else". Normal stuff.
2. Modification with really: "nothing really else", "no one really else", "nowhere really else".

Umm, it's yellow and Horizontal... nothing really else I can say about it.
There’s nothing really else around to which The Nameless Uncarved Block can usefully be compared.
My heavenly father loves me for me and noone really else matters.
Or was the situation so bad that there was nowhere really else to go?

This is non-standard, but no big shock. Note that "no one really else matters" (if it's grammatical) means something different from "no one else really matters" (or any of the other strings resulting from moving really around). I think that the people who use these expressions intend to intensify the else rather than the negative (though I'm not entirely sure, because I don't think I'm one of them, and I haven't studied the construction).

3. Starting point #2: "really to VERB" <-> "to really VERB". Different orders are preferred for different verbs in different constructions and meanings, and as a result, there is a lot of confusion as sequential probabilities fight against structural preferences. In particular, "really to go" has 6,970 hits, while "to really go" has 48,300. Often the "split infinitive" is the only order that makes sense:

Travel is the Only Way to Really Go Places.
But nobody wants to really go back to basics of diet and exercise as the fountain of youth.
The use of our armored assailant Instructors in these dynamically realistic street attack scenarios finally allows you to really go flat out.

I mean, how else are you going to say those things?

4. Observation #3: "nowhere to" is a really common bigram: 1.59M whG (even typed twice).

5. OK, now we're ready to go. The announcer started to put together the simple cliche "He had nowhere else to go" (689 whG). He decided to modify else with really: "He had nowhere really else to go". Then in the excitement of the moment, his sequential preferences ("nowhere to", "to really") pulled "really else" over past "to".


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 9, 2005 03:00 PM