April 15, 2006

Hungry for constraint

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That's a fib: a poem of a type invented by Gregory K. Pincus (another GKP, but it's not me, he's a screenwriter and aspiring children's book author in Los Angeles) in which each line after the second contains as many syllables as the last two lines added together, so that the successive syllable counts follow the Fibonacci sequence. (Technically, the first line should be taken to be a blank one, so it has a syllable count of zero. The only stipulated syllable count is for the second line, which must contain to contain just one syllable, but from then on, it all follows the rule made famous in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code: 0+1 = 1, 1+1 = 2, 1+2 = 3, 2+3 = 5, 3+5 = 8.)

According to The New York Times [Friday April 14, page B31; couldn't find a web location], fibs are catching on all over the Internet, and more than a thousand have been written. I didn't want Language Log to be the last blog to publish one.

The Times article quotes Annie Finch, a poet who teaches at the University of Southern Maine and has written on formal poetry, as saying:

Poets are very, very hungry for constraint right now. . . . Poets are often poets because they love to play with words and love constraints that allow the self to step out of the picture a little bit. The form gives you something to dance with so it's not just you alone on the page.

I like that phrase "hungry for constraint". We grammarians love constraints too, of course. Figuring out what exactly the constraints of a given language are is a big part of our job description. What's different about constraints in formal poetry is that instead of being inherent in the language and unconsciously obeyed, the constraints are completely arbitrary, and the poet adopts them just to see what results when you try to use language in a way that complies with them (and at the same time also complies with at least most of the inherent constraints, of course — allowing for poetic license to violate some).

Personally, I don't have a lot of interest in the results of adopting arbitrary constraints. But I am always thrilled when I discover a new genuine, inherent constraint. I remember the day in 1997 that I discovered the key syntactic constraint on doubling adjectives to signal intensification (It's a huge, huge problem). You might have thought, once the existence of such doublings was pointed out, that wherever an adjective like huge occurs you can double it; but that is not true. There is a very important constraint on what else has to be true in the sentence in order for it to be permissible. Nobody had ever noticed it before. Perhaps you can identify it. The answer can be found on page 561 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and to the best of my knowledge no one had ever previously given a description of the special condition. In fact I can't find any other grammar that even notes the possibility of adjective doubling at all.

I wonder how long it will be before I discover another constraint inherent in the grammar of ordinary Standard English that no one had previously noticed. I look forward to it. Hungry for constraints.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 15, 2006 12:23 PM