December 28, 2006

VPE on the edge

Our very own John McWhorter wrote the following yesterday:

And yet NOO is not "slang" -- it's grammar. One could write a whole paper on it (and, as it happens, one is!).

No doubt John knew just what he was doing here: producing an instance of so-called Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE) -- in "one is ___" -- where the missing material is to be understood as "writing a whole paper on it" (a present participle VP), even though the antecedent is "write a whole paper on it" (a base-form VP).  I think many readers would have a moment (up to a few centiseconds, maybe) of pause while they worked that one out, and possibly they would have had a small spike in their P600 ERP responses (but nothing special for N400), indicating that they were noting a syntactic surprise.  He was playing with us, making us do a little bit of interpretive work and, maybe, giving us some enjoyment in the process.

[Added 12/29/06: Several readers note that part of the surprise effect is in the shift from truly generic one to the pseudo-generic one that refers to the speaker.]

Two things here: what counts as a legitimate VPE (some things are definitely on the edge); and how to draw the line between creative language use that stretches the boundaries of grammar a bit and plain unacceptability (again, there are things on the edge).

Background about VPE: this is an English construction in which the complement of an auxiliary verb (a modal, BE, or perfect HAVE, plus a few other things for some speakers) or infinitival TO is omitted:

(1) I can't juggle knives, but Dmitri can ___.
(2) I'm not going, but Dmitri is ___.
(3) I was attacked by the wolves, but Dmitri wasn't ___.
(4) I'll be unhappy, and Dmitri will be ___, too.
(5) I've finished my work, and Dmitri has ___, too.
(6) I don't want to eat the sashimi, but Dmitri wants to ___.

(The "remainder" elements are bold-faced here, and the missing complements are indicated by underscores.)

Though the construction is usually known as Verb Phrase Ellipsis (sometimes Verb Phrase Deletion), the omitted phrase is not always a VP.  In (4), it's an AdjP.  "VPE" isn't a bad name, but it doesn't tell you everything.  The slogan is: Labels Are Not Definitions.

VPE requires a linguistic antecedent -- it's not enough that the appropriate verbal semantics be "in the air" -- but it doesn't require that the omitted complement match the antecedent perfectly.  Infinitival TO as remainder will have an omitted bare-form VP, but the antecedent can have a different non-finite form:

[present participial antecedent] Stanford University and the city of Palo Alto are opening up their joint meetings to the public for the first time in three decades "because there's no reason not to ___,"...

or a finite form:

[finite antecedent] Mercedes ranks high for dependability but not as high as it used to ___.

(The head verbs in the antecedent phrases are italicized here.)

Various other mismatches between the omitted phrase and its antecedent are possible.  But some mismatches are edgy, and John McWhorter's -- present participial omitted VP, base-form antecedent VP -- is one of them.  Here's a parallel example that I copied into a file because I lingered over it for a slice of a moment:

"We cannot allow energy to divide Europe as Communism once did," José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, told The Financial Times.  But it is ___.  (Thomas L. Friedman, "The Really Cold War", op-ed piece in the NYT, 10/25/06, p. A19)

It's not hard to collect even more extreme mismatches, which some people judge to be acceptable, while others do not.  Here's one Ron Hardin reported on in the newsgroup sci.lang on 9/28/06, from an NYT editorial:

Those men could have been tried and convicted long ago, but President Bush chose not to ___.

Here the antecedent is passive, while the omitted VP is active ("try and convict those men").

Even further out -- well over the line, for me -- is this one:

Domagk, for his part, believed that he had run his tests flawlessly.  Almost every time they tested an azo dye with a sulfa side chain, it killed strep; almost every time it did not ___, the effect [of killing strep] was absent or greatly reduced.  (Thomas Hager, The Demon Under the Microscope (Harmony Books, 2006), p. 174)

Here the antecedent VP isn't explicit, but is suggested by the prepositional phrase "with a sulfa side chain": "have a sulfa side chain".

My response to most of the imperfectly matching VPE examples, however, is that they are either straightforwardly acceptable (and so escape notice unless I'm specifically looking for such examples) or edgy in their syntax but interpretable -- much like novel verbings:

Roughly 20 percent of men sexing other men and catching syphilis indicated only oral sex exposure. (Instinct magazine, December 2004)

I really gangbustered to get it [the project report] out. (Overheard by Tyler Schnoebelen, March 2005)

Updating my web site to reflect new movie scripts, DVDs and musical score CDs that the studios have freebied me with ... (Ken Rudolph on soc.motss, February 2002)

(plus an enormous number based on proper names: the verbs Bork, Winona, Martha Stewart, (James) Frey, Wal-Mart, etc.)

Novel verbings are all over the place; people invent them all the time.  Some critics object to those that have become widespread, like access and dialogue, but as far as I can tell the objections are really about the tone of these words (they are administrativese or pretentious, or in the case of consequence 'punish', euphemistic) rather than about morphological conversion itself.  Otherwise, verbings are just part of the artistry of everyday language, and like other artistry, require a bit of work by the audience.  They frustrate the audience's expectation for a split second; resolving the surprise can then provide pleasure.  (For the record, I found John McWhorter's VPE sentence satisfying.)

But: writing advice routinely counsels against surprising your audience, against making your readers work.  Interpretation is supposed to be seamless and smooth.  It is, of course, only too easy to find sentences that require far too much work, even in their context; we comment here fairly often on various sorts of ineptness that make the reader's task onerous.  Still, there ought to be room for a certain amount of artistry in all sorts of writing; people shouldn't have to wait until they get their Fine Writer Certificate to play with some of the available effects.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 28, 2006 09:03 PM