June 01, 2005

Scanting out

scanting Some forty years ago Haj Ross coined the term scanting out for the paralytic bafflement that afflicts many people when they try to say how they use some relatively infrequent expression.  It happened to me yesterday.

Scanting out goes like this: 

You're asked how you use the word scant, and immediately you supply some instance of a scant MEASURE of SUBSTANCE, say a scant cup of sugar.  You go on to observe that, though scant  certainly appears to be an adjective, it can't be used predicatively: *This cup of sugar is scant.  Now you've got it boxed in, between a context in which it's clearly acceptable and one in which it's clearly unacceptable.  But at this point things can get nasty, there in the middle.

If it's an adjective, maybe it can be compared: ?This is an even scanter cup of sugar.  ?This is a more scant cup of sugar than I've ever seen.  ?This is the scantest cup of sugar I've ever seen.  Or otherwise modified: ?This is a really/pretty scant cup of coffee.  Though it can't occur in ordinary predicatives, maybe it can occur in fronted ones: ?Scant though the cup of sugar was, it was enough for the cake. 

At this point, other expressions crowd into your consciousness and interfere with your judgments: scanty, skimpy, sparse, not quite a, nearly/almost a.  One moment nearly everything seems not too bad, the next moment hardly anything seems fully ok.  You have scanted out.  The mechanism that allows you to make acceptability judgments has shorted out on scant, its circuits overloaded.

That's the scanting-out experience.  Yesterday it happened to me, after I read this sentence:

    You seem proud of your ignorance, inventing words as they seem fit.

(I was being berated for my defense of trepidatious, but that's not what's at issue here.)  My eye and ear were caught by as they seem fit, which didn't seem quite felicitous to me.  So I started to think about how I use seem fit.  ?I sent a small gift, as seems/seemed fit.  ?It seems fit to close the meeting at this point.  And so on.  Maybe it should have been as you [not they] see [not seem] fit.  Or maybe as they seem fitting [not fit] (to you).  Maybe the original sentence was a blend of these.  On the other hand, it didn't seem THAT bad; maybe  it was really ok.

In any case, within seconds I no longer had any feel for how seem fit works for me.  I googled on "seem fit" and "seems fit", but that merely produced a blizzard of examples, none of which seemed entirely acceptable or entirely unacceptable to me.  I began to wonder if I actually used seem fit at all.  I'm sure I use seem fitting/appropriate and see fit to, but maybe I don't use seem fit myself, except with fit in other senses: physically and mentally fit, fit for the job, fit to go to war, fit to be tied, and so on. Maybe I just recognize it when other people use it.  My head hurts.

No doubt some other people are clearer about how things work for them.   But that won't help ME.  Maybe if I had a large enough searchable sample of my own speaking and writing, I could figure out what I do with seem fit (if anything).  Meanwhile, my seem fit circuit is out.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 1, 2005 09:00 PM