May 10, 2006

A racy WTF coordination

Joe Gordon spotted a headline that is both off-color (erotically so) and off-kilter (grammatically so) on Drew Curtis', a popular website where users comment on a variety of weird and wacky news articles. In this case the news concerns a Kentucky schoolteacher who was fired after it was revealed that she once appeared in an adult movie. The teacher says she's now a good Christian and is asking her community to forgive her. Here's the wisecracking headline that a Farker supplied for the linked article:

"Teacher who starred in porn movie a decade ago wants forgiveness, it harder, faster, OH GOD YES"

It's our old friend "WTF coordination," now working blue.

The submitter of the headline is consciously playing with the telegraphic conventions of headlinese, in which coordinate structures are often clipped by removing and, leaving only a comma to join two conjuncts (e.g., "Sen. Clinton Says Bush Has Charm, Charisma"). A startling change in register is also used for comic effect, shifting from the matter-of-fact reportage of "Teacher who starred in porn movie a decade ago wants forgiveness" to the soft-core titillation of " harder, faster, OH GOD YES." Stripping away the enraptured coda and adjusting for ellipticality, we're left with this coordination of unlikes:

[The] teacher wants {forgiveness} [and] {it harder [and] faster}.

The first complement of the verb want is a straightforward direct object, {forgiveness}. But when the headline shifts gears with the second complement, {it harder [and] faster}, things get a little tricky. One can think of the full version as using an infinitive complement of want with raising:

[The] teacher wants {it to be harder [and] faster}.

In such constructions, the infinitive to be may be optionally deleted, yielding:

[The] teacher wants {it harder [and] faster}.

The result is a kind of "small clause" complement, {it harder [and] faster}, which is quite divergent from the direct object complement {forgiveness}. What makes this coordination even harder to parse is the fact that the second complement starts off with the pronoun it, without any obvious antecedent. (The referent for the anaphor it in "[The] teacher wants it harder [and] faster" is left as an exercise for the reader.) Especially given the telegraphic deletion of the conjunctive and, the unusual second complement only heightens the WTF effect, perhaps requiring an extra reading or two to figure out what's going on. All of this actually serves to increase the comedic value of the bizarre and unexpected register shift between complements. The commenters seem suitably appreciative, as the headline elicited such approbation as "*golf clap*", "kudos", "LOL-d", and "Go headline, go, go!" It just goes to show that incongruity as the engine of humor can encompass grammatical incongruity as well.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 10, 2006 01:08 AM