November 15, 2006

No longer the subject of that mighty verb

Douglas Davidson submits to the linguification desk a sentence from Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, an utterly baffling piece of linguifying that ends by saying of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that

They are no longer the subject of that mighty verb, only its painful object.

I not only have no idea what he means, I am inclined to doubt that even he has any idea what he means. Here it is again with a paragraph of context:

Bush and Blair are men in a hurry, and such men lose wars. If there is a game plan in Tehran it will be to play Iraq long. Why stop the Great Satan when he is driving himself to hell in a handcart? If London and Washington really want help in this part of the world they must start from diplomatic ground zero. They will have to stop the holier-than-thou name-calling and the pretence that they hold any cards. They will have to realise that this war has lost them all leverage in the region. They can insult and sanction and threaten. But there is nothing left for them to "do" but leave. They are no longer the subject of that mighty verb, only its painful object.

To start with, which "mighty verb", and why is it mighty? Does he mean the mighty verb leave? Because making Bush and Blair the object of that verb would give us sentences like this:

The journalists decided to leave Bush and Blair, and went off to look for Britney Spears.

I can't make anything sensible out of the idea that Bush and Blair have switched from being in a position to be described by true sentences in which Bush and Blair would be the subject (as in If Bush and Blair leave Iraq, lots of people will be happy) to being a position to be described by true sentences in which Bush and Blair serves as direct object.

Could Jenkins have meant the verb do, which he oddly puts in greengrocer quotation marks (WE HAVE "FRESH" TOMATOES!), as if they constituted a way of showing emphasis? Same problem. Doing Bush and Blair (in any sense) just doesn't seem to be what he's talking about.

And why "its painful object"? In what sense can a grammatical object be painful? What exactly is painful here? [Don't tell me you think that "do" is intended in the sexual sense, and that's what's painful. Jenkins doesn't mean that; does he? At least one person who has already emailed me thinks that he does: he means Iraq is going to "do" Bush and Blair in the sense of bugger them. I guess what this reminds me of most is the crude remark by John McClane, the cop played by Bruce Willis in the 1988 movie Die Hard, when he points out to the recently humiliated police chief, "You're the one who just got butt-fucked on nationwide TV." Could Simon Jenkins really have that in mind? It doesn't seem plausible to me.]

Simon Cauchi has pointed out to me what is probably the right answer (I am modifying this from the earlier version of the post). He points to an earlier sentence (with another linguification I hadn't noticed!). I missed it because it is an astonishing nine paragraphs back from what I quoted above; but it is the key. Jenkins says that in Iraq:

It is total anarchy. All sentences beginning, "What we should now do in Iraq ... " are devoid of meaning. We are in no position to do anything. We have no potency; that is the definition of anarchy.

So here is what is going on. The "mighty verb" is do. And Jenkins is equating "subject" with "person who does things and is in control of actions", and "object" with "person or thing that gets things done to it and is not in control of actions", and "verb" with "action". He means Bush and Blair (surrogates for the whole of the West) are not in control, and will soon not be able to decide to take the action of doing something to get out of Iraq; rather, they will have something done to them — they will be pushed out of Iraq by the actions of others.

In grammar, "subject" doesn't mean "actor", and "object" doesn't mean "undergoer", and "verb" doesn't mean "action". Those confusions, much beloved of traditional pedagogical grammar, bedevil serious attempts to teach syntax. Jenkins' double effort at linguifying here has stuck him with a sentence that is hard to make any sense of at first. It's one of the most ill-judged attempts at effective writing I've seen in quite a while.

It all makes me think that perhaps Simon Jenkins needs a little rest from writing columns to deadline. (Jenkins was also responsible for some of the "entertaining foolishness" concerning the recent great spelling brouhaha.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 15, 2006 06:26 PM