May 12, 2006

Asking Dr. Language Log

In this morning's mail:

Dear Dr. Log:

A full page ad for the Red Cross in May 15, 2006 issue of The New Yorker has the following headline

What if harm's way was headed yours?

Why is this so jarring? It doesn't seem to be a straightforward syntactic problem:

What if John's car was blocking yours?

One hypothesis is that "way" has different meanings in "harm's way" -- path that harm is following -- and "your way" -- path towards you, and this mismatch interferes with ellipsis reconstruction (cf. Andy Kehler's thesis). Or is it something simpler?

Referentially Challenged, Philadelphia

A few minutes later, Prof. Challenged wrote back with "something simpler":

The problem is that "Harm's way" is not a sensible subject for "was headed".

He also suggested something more complicated, namely that the Red Cross question might be a kind of Escher sentence.

It's a treat to have correspondents who write in with interesting questions, and then write back with answers. This could become a regular Language Log feature.

[Credit for this Q&A belongs to Fernando Pereira]

[Update: Joe Malin points out that "headed yours" is a bit of old radio operator shorthand, for example:

One memorable Mason wireless dispatch: "Twenty-five torpedo bombers headed yours." The message cost the Japanese Imperial Navy every one of those airplanes, save one. [emphasis added]

So maybe the apparent ellipsis in this case is actually pragmatically-controlled anaphora. An argument against: {"headed yours"} gets only 27 Google hits.]

[Update #2: Paul Kay writes

I think harm's way has to be the object of a preposition, perhaps only one of {in, out of, from}. Also this is one of those PPs that can only be used predicatively:

*The platoon was foolishly relaxing in harm's way.
The platoon was foolishly relaxing, while [they were] in harm's way.
*[I hate it here.] Harm's way is a shitty place/Harm's way sucks.

[Well, maybe "Harm's way sucks" could work as a jeu de mots. It would require a lot of previous context.]

I.e., the problem seems more general than that harm's way isn't a proper suject for headed. I don't think it's a proper subject at all.

Also, it's one of those closely bound PP objects that resist extraction:

??Harm's way, I don't want my son to be put in.
??We reluctantly put the platoon in harm's way that couldn't be avoided.
We reluctantly put the platoon in danger/a dangerous position that couldn't be avoided.

I think Paul is right.

Here's a curious thing. In the large part of English poetry indexed by LION, there are 23 instances of "harm's way", of which 21 are "out of", 1 is "in", and 1 is prepositionless. The lone bare example is the 2nd through 4th lines of Paul Simic's "Ballad" (from Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, 1974):

A little girl picking flowers in a forest
The migrant's fire of her long hair
Harm's way she comes and also the smile's round about way

(Simic is apparently playing with the fact that we normally say "coming my way" or "coming Paul's way" but not "coming harm's way" -- despite the one web citation "without the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation, all health research in Nova Scotia will come harm's way." This the same wordplay in the ad slogan Fernando cited.)

In quantitative constrast, on the web there are roughly twice as many examples of "in harm's way" as "out of harm's way":

out of 716,000
in 1,500,000
into 225,000
from 48,200

Without looking into it, I believe that this represents an idiomatic preference for boldness over protectiveness, perhaps connected to this idiom by the echoes of John Paul Jones' famous remark "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way." Jones did not invent the idiom, however -- the OED gives citations for "out of harm's way" from 1661, and "in harm's way" from 1677:

a1661 FULLER Worthies (1840) I. xviii. 61 Some great persons..have been made sheriffs, to keep them out of harm's way.
a1677 T. MANTON Serm. Psalm cxix, civ in Wks. (1872) VIII. 5 To stand nicely upon terms of duty is to run in harm's way.

The web offers a few semi-convincing examples of "harm's way" with other prepositions:

Well, maybe those hurricane shutters can wait until 2007 - after all you slipped by harm's way in 2005, and maybe you'll do the same in 2006, right?
When he had driven Hood beyond harm's way, he returned and made all haste to put his army in readiness for the march to the sea.
Can you lead these 5 other men, and yourself, through harm's way, intentionally, and come out alive on the other side?
...he wanted to create a robotic spy plane that could fly above harm's way at altitudes above 60000 feet.

And there was an episode of the cult TV series Angel named Harm's Way (episode 9, season 5), which excuses various otherwise-odd word sequences on the web.


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 12, 2006 07:54 AM