November 13, 2005

It sleeps obedience

Said Tom Paine (quoted by The Economist, 12 November 2005, p.13), speaking of the often somnolent state of the British parliament and its reluctance to rise up against a sitting prime minister by voting to defeat his proposed legislation:

"The minister, whoever he at any time may be, touches it as with an opium wand, and it sleeps obedience."

And although I did a bit of a double-take, I soon got the idea of what was meant by that stunningly ungrammatical sleeps obedience — with its intransitive verb assigned a direct object in defiance of all syntactic decency. It must mean "Parliament shows its obedience by sleeping" — it's somewhat like He nodded his agreement or She smiled her approval. Proof positive, were it needed, that we are capable of doing something quite remarkable with our native language: we can follow what is meant by sentences that do not have a prayer of being characterized as grammatical by the principles we normally use for our production and interpretation of utterances. I suppose one could instead say that there are no intransitive verbs, or that far from it being the case that (as I believe) nearly all strings of words are ungrammatical, rather, everything is correct, nothing is ungrammatical. But that seems to me to be a considerably less sensible view than the one I hold, which is that the principles that tell us what is grammatical tell us quite a bit about sequences of words that are not grammatical. Not every theory of grammar permits that to be the case. I think the ones that don't have got a problem.

Of course, I speak only of modern English. Steve, over at Language Hat, has already (within about an hour or so of me first posting this) mailed me to point out first that sleep can take what are called "cognate objects" (as in to sleep the sleep of the just), which I knew, and second, something I did not know, that the use of sleep as a transitive verb involved here is covered in the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with a somewhat different Thomas Paine quote, in a rather weird passage where what they say about the meaning can't be right:

7. To put off or delay; to disregard, pay no attention to. Also with out. Obs. 1470 Paston Lett. II. 398, I pray yow let not thys mater be slept. 1523 LD. BERNERS Froiss. I. cclxi. 385 So these companyons..slept nat their purpose, but rode in a day and a night. a1548 HALL Chron., Hen. VI, 123 These valeaunt capitaines, not myndyng to slepe their busines, environed the toune with a strong siege. 1600 HOLLAND Livy XXIII. xiv. 482 They might not sleepe their affaires and go slowly about their businesse. 1624 HEYWOOD Gunaik. IV. 179 To persuade men to too much remisnes in wincking at and sleeping out the adulteries of their wives. 1792 T. PAINE Writ. (1895) III. 79 It appeared to me extraordinary that any body of men..should commit themselves so precipitately, or 'sleep obedience'.

They cannot possibly mean that sleep means "disregard" in these examples. Surely sleep obedience doesn't mean "disregard obedience". My interpretation makes more sense. But Steve may be right that there is more historical research to be done here. Research that I haven't done.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 13, 2005 04:40 PM