November 25, 2005

Going it alone

On page 160 of Jonathan Kellerman's novel Flesh and Blood (Ballantine, 2001) a character says, "Far as I recall, she went it alone." I was struck by the fact that I could never use that latter phrase. I don't remember previously noticing this, but for me the idiom go it alone is extremely limited in its contexts of occurrence: there can be no tense inflection on go, nor past participle inflection. That is, I find *went it alone ungrammatical; *gone it alone is also terrible; and I think *goes it alone is bad as well. As a double-check, I searched the Wall Street Journal corpus, and found 48 tokens of go it alone, 8 of going it alone, and nothing else. Of course, Google as usual provides examples of things you never thought you'd find: 15,000 hits for went it alone, and nearly as many (13,500) for gone it alone. There's a lot of text out there, much of it written by people who apparently don't speak quite the same variety of English that I do. So I'm not saying that these forms don't occur, or that they shouldn't. Rather, the puzzle is why the inflected forms of this idiom should sound so terrible to me when (clearly) there is no general grammatical principle ruling them out and some people use them. The only serious possibility is that I, like other human beings, must be quite sensitive to unconsciously noted and tabulated statistics about frequency of patterns. It has become well known since the work of Jenny Saffran and others from about 1996 that even newborn babies are highly sensitive to statistical patterns in speech that they hear. (You test them by such stratagems as detecting a shift of gaze, or a change in sucking rhythm while feeding, when a stimulus that breaks the pattern is presented.) Clearly, it isn't just babies that unconsciously keep track of how frequently they hear what. And in this case I just happened to notice explicitly the reaction in myself, so no experimental detection of gaze shift or whisky-sipping rate was needed.

By the way, the reason we really have to consider this an idiom is that the verb go is strictly intransitive: it can't take normally take a direct object: *Let's get our coats on and go it!. And in the special usage go it alone, the it cannot be replaced by an ordinary noun phrase (*Let's get our coats on and go it!. There are all sorts of other syntactic peculiarities, like that there's no passive (*It has been gone alone by many people); and of course the meaning is somewhat unpredictable: I think go it alone means, very roughly, something like "take up or continue some endeavor despite lack of the assistance of others that would in some sense have been preferable". You don't refer to it as going it alone if you just decide to get lunch at a diner without inviting anyone else along; that's just lunch. Going it alone has got to involve something a little bit bold or unusual in that normally there would have been an expectation that others would be needed. I think that's accurate (but hey, don't trust me on semantics, it is not my normal schtick).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 25, 2005 02:28 PM