April 25, 2005

Better a spectacular blunder than a hint of unseemliness

In the April 25 New Yorker, pages 2 and 3 are a spread for the "all-new Infiniti M". The right-hand page shows a driver's view of the high-tech cockpit in glowing beige and brown. Above the picture, a few words of normal-looking text tell us about the Lane Departure Warning System, the Bose Studio Surround Sound, the Bluetooth Wireless Technology, and the exhilarating 335 horsepower.

On the left-hand page, the cockpit photo fades elegantly into a warm brownish blackness, against which enormous glowing off-white letters are laid out as if on a surface slanted away from us toward the center of the spread -- an open driver's door? -- with textual perspective lines leading us back into the picture to the right:

Designed to think the way you do, the technology is smart, simple and invisible. A fresh new contemporary space that takes luxury into the wireless modern world it belongs.

Uh, like, "to"? Or "in"?

Unless I'm being really dense, or missing some language change in progress here*, that second sentence is ungrammatical. Not non-standard-English ungrammatical, not made-up strunkadelic pseudo-rule ungrammatical, but just plain everybody-knows-it's-wrong inco-freaking-rrect.

What's the story here? This two-page ad must have cost Nissan North America about $200,000 to run, and Lord knows how much to design, so we can assume that the copy was proofread once or twice. Surely this is not a typo.

Well, I have a theory.

Although "to" or "in" would fit the lay-out easily, the other obvious alternative wordings wouldn't: "the wireless modern world where it belongs"; "the wireless modern world to which it belongs"; "the wireless modern world in which it belongs". For any of these, you'd have to change the font sizes and redo all the line divisions. That would be hard, since the existing lines are only 15 or 16 characters long. To add the five characters of "where" or the eight characters of "to which" would take some big changes, spoiling the whole feel of the lay-out.

So here's what I think happened. The copy started out as "...the wireless modern world it belongs in", or "... the wireless modern world it belongs to". Then at the last minute, someone at Nissan North America looked at the ad and said "Wait a minute, that sentence ends with a preposition. What will people think?"

The ad agency team (from TBWA\Chiat\Day, according to BrandWeek) trotted out the usage books that say stranded prepositions are OK, and even the fake Churchill quote. But the auto execs weren't having it: "This is a luxury car, you can't use that tacky syntax!" What to do? There was no room for "where" or "to which", and no time to re-do the whole thing. Other local substitutions raised other troubling associations: "the wireless modern world it controls"? "... deserves?" "... inhabits"? "... inherits"? "... traverses"? In desperation, they decided to leave the preposition out, hoping that most people wouldn't notice. Better a genuinely mistaken sentence than the social anxiety associated with violating an absurd "rule" that was invented out of thin air by John Dryden in 1672 and has been scorned by every competent expert since.

This is all just a theory, mind you. I'll let you know if I hear another story from anyone in a position to know.

* To be fair, it's not totally out of the question that some people might be moving in the direction of using "belong" with a location as direct object. There's a model in relative clauses with the place as the head:

Lay out all the cards and the drawings and work with your child to match each machine with the place it belongs.
The place that I belong right now is home.

However, other words of similar meaning don't work for me in the same construction:

???...match each machine with the location it belongs.
???The location that I belong right now is home.

...though Google finds a few people who think this sort of thing is fine:

...copy the new directory into the location it belongs.
...returning anything out-of-place to the location it belongs.
Either send it to the location that it belongs or send it to Susan Fanning and ask that she forward it to the proper person.

Even place doesn't work for me other than in such relative clauses:

*This machine belongs that place.

and in this case, Google doesn't seem to find any native speakers who disagree with me. I think this is something about place, not something about belong. All these internet examples (with place as head and other verbs in the relative clause) are fine for me:

Check out the place that we're going, Burke's Canoe Trips,
All the places I've looked just have it up for sale without listing what the DVD contains.
Congress needs a crash course in Internet technology followed by a swift kick in the place it sits.

even though all the non-relative-clause versions strike me as hopeless or at least questionable even with place, and worse with other noun phrases for locations:

*We're going a place on the river.
*We're going Burke's Canoe Trips.
?I've looked many places.
*I've looked many music stores.
*He's sitting a place halfway between his shoulder blades and his knees.
*He's sitting his rear end doing nothing.

The string "the world that it belongs" occurs 40 times in Google's index, and none of them have the structure required by the Infiniti ad. The string "the world it belongs" occurs 1,940 times, mostly irrelevantly:

Before Him, individual distinctiveness belongs to the 'nothingness' of being in the world. It belongs on a basis that is not God...
And the world it belongs to me...
But world music is still something that belongs to the world. It belongs to the people.

There are too many for me to want to check them all, but after looking at the first couple of hundred hits, I don't think we're going to find anything like the structure used in the Infiniti ad. If there's a change in that direction, it's way too early to use it in a luxury car ad.

[Update 4/29/2005: Neal Whitman emails:

I've noticed the kind of missing preposition that you noticed in the Infiniti ad, too. Sometimes I think the situation is what you hypothesize. In fact, I think your analysis of this ad is on the money, since it really does sound bad. Other times, though, deletion of the preposition can be gotten away with:

1. It works with antecedent-contained deletion. For example, someone giving me advice on exiting a tight parking space said, "Go out at the angle you came in." Not "...at the angle you came in AT." But the key is that the 'at' already appears earlier in the sentence. I'm not sure of the exact conditions when this can happen, but I'm pretty sure the name for it is "antecedent-contained deletion." In this case, the preposition omission is almost obligatory, since (to my ear) the repeated 'at' sounds funny, even though it parses out right. In fact, maybe the 'into'/'to' repetition was close enough to activate the ACD rule in the ad-writers' grammar, but just not in yours or mine.

2. Or, as you note, the noun heading the adverbial relative clause might be a special one such as 'place,' which allows the omission of a needed preposition. These have been written about by Richard Larson in a couple of LI papers in the 1980s, and by McCawley. And by yours truly, in a 2002 issue of Journal of Linguistics (where full bibliographic info on the other sources is listed).

That's Whitman, N. (2002) " A categorial treatment of adverbial nouns." Journal of Linguistics 38.521-597]

[Update 5/1/2005: Andrew Palumbo observes that I could use negative conditions like -"belongs there" to eliminate spurious matches (along perhaps with some real ones) from the Google search for other examples of phrases like "into the world it belongs". The search {"into the world it belongs" -"belongs there" -"belongs to" -"belongs in"} returns nothing at all; {"into the * world it belongs" -"belongs there" -"belongs to" -"belongs in"} returns one spurious hit; {"into the * * world it belongs" -"belongs there" -"belongs to" -"belongs in"} returns only this very page itself!

We can combine negative conditions with a wildcard "*" {"into the * it belongs" -"belongs there" -"belongs to" -"belongs in" -"the place it -"the places it"} to find 94 possible examples of this construction with head words other than place or places, such as

Either move in behind it, or pass it, giving it opportunity to move back into the lane it belongs.
As you continue to evaluate, improve, and adjust it will bring your marriage back into the arena it belongs.
...you have to make your trail map narrow to fit say 400 or 450 pixels wide to get that map back into the area it belongs...
Ask the priest to go kick some other church's backside into the spot it belongs.
The ABRA's goal is not to take over the barrel racing industry, but rather to take the barrel racing industry back into the Hands it belongs.
The title of Chapter 18 puts oral sex into the context it belongs...
Album reviews, like most other reviews, should either give the album kudos, or knock it into the shitcan it belongs.

All of these strike me as pretty bad, but after I've read 50 or 60 of them in a row, they're beginning to move out of the WTF category. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 25, 2005 12:42 AM