December 12, 2006

Army strong reanalyzed

The news that one can pull down $200 million of public money for devising a two-word slogan for a branch of the armed services really caught my attention. ($200 million would be in the general region of two thousand times higher than the average gross annual income of a top linguistics professor or a senior writer at Language Log. And we can devise a dozen good two-word slogans in a three-minute break at the water cooler. Much of the $200m must be the budget for TV ads.) But anyway, having given my full attention to the phrase, I see that my esteemed colleague Roger Shuy has clearly misanalyzed the phrase. "Interestingly, the adjective comes after the noun it modifies," he says, and compares it to noun phrases like money aplenty. No, I don't think so.

The clue is in the "deep male voice saying, ‘There's strong, and then there's Army strong’," which Roger mentions as occurring in the TV recruiting ad: army strong is supposed to be a special subtype of strong. The phrase is actually an adjective phrase, with strong as the head, and Army functions as a modifier. This is an unusual construction, but not unprecedented. One could compare it with stone cold, meaning "cold in the way that stone is cold." There's being strong, and then there's being strong in the way that the Army is strong. I'm pretty sure that's right; and since modifiers in adjective phrases generally precede the head, we do not have any unusual word order in Army strong. We just have the rather unusual circumstance of a phrase in which a noun modifies an adjective. This is in fact the construction that I mentioned in an earlier post which I devoted to the construction Box spaghetti straight.

It has also been pointed out to me that use of this construction in advertising is not exactly original, and certainly not $200m original; for example, the slogan "There's clean. And then there's Chem-Dry clean" has been around for a while (not sure how long).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 12, 2006 07:24 PM