February 18, 2007

Hatchet job on Hart?

In a post a couple of weeks ago ("Democrat majority": offensive but not ungrammatical, 1/31/2007), I ventured to disagree on a point of grammar with Roderick P. Hart, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. Maura Reynolds of the L.A. Times quoted him in support of the view that W's use of "Democrat majority" in the SOTU speech was ungrammatical:

"It sounds illiterate to me," said the University of Texas' Hart. "It's a noun used to modify a noun, and everyone knows you use an adjective to modify a noun."

I pointed out that the use of nouns to modify nouns is a commonplace and well established fact of English grammar; that Prof. Hart's own course descriptions make frequent use of Noun+Noun phrases like "policy sphere" and "movement politics"; and that he surely knows about political parties whose names have the Noun+Noun form, like the "Labour Party". I concluded that "when the dean of the College of Communication at one of America's best universities, a specialist in the language of politics, thinks that nominal modifiers are always ungrammatical or at least substandard, perhaps we've reached a historical low-water mark in the ability of intellectuals to analyze language".

In response, Paul Quirk (who is a professor of political science at UBC) wrote:

I think you did a hatchet job on Hart, a good scholar, who certainly knows that nouns can be used as modifiers, and whose point was--roughly speaking--correct. Nouns can be used as modifiers, as if they were adjectives; but not if there is an adjective form of the noun.

You can do "quality work," but not "speed work," because there is an adjective, "speedy." "He made speed work of it" and "he belongs to the Democrat party" are, in my opinion, both illiterate.

I agree that Prof. Hart is a fine scholar -- that's why his remark, if accurately quoted, is such a telling indictment of my field's fifty years of failure to educate the population in elementary grammatical analysis. I also recognize that his apparent ignorance may well be the journalist's invention: we've certainly documented plenty of examples of that type. But for someone who knows what the words "adjective", "noun" and "modify" mean, a few minute's reflection on the facts of English will make it clear that the claimed fact is false.

What about Prof. Quirk's suggested back-off position: nouns can be used as modifiers, but not if there is a morphologically-related adjective?

This is also clearly false, at least in general. For example, there's nothing ungrammatical about bible study (2,250,000 Google hits), even though biblical study (228,000) is also available. Looking on the index page of this morning's New York Times, I find "Iraq war" (despite the adjective Iraqi), "Gaza rebuilding" (despite the adjective Gazan), "suicide bomber" (despite the adjective suicidal), and so on. I recognize that the Adjective+Noun sequences would have somewhat different meanings in these cases, but the point here is a formal one.

In the particular case of speed and speedy, there are many common phrases in which speed qualifies a noun: speed boat, speed dating, speed reading, speed skating, speed work. Again, the meanings are different: speed work gets 222,000 Google hits in the sense of "athletic training aimed at improving speed", but it doesn't have to be "speedy work" in the sense of being over and done with quickly, or in the sense of being characterized by a uniformly fast pace. On the contrary, I remember "speed work" training in high school as interminable-seeming 45-minute sessions, several days a week, in which sprints alternated with slower stuff. But again, the point here is about form, not meaning.

Now, what about Prof. Quirk's suggestion that the idiomatic frame "He made __ work of it" requires an adjective? My intuitions agree -- and a web search for {"made * work of it"} turns up bad, easy, hard, light, rough, sad, short, swift, quick, most piteous, wretched among many others, but no nouns. (It seems to me that genitive-case forms like "made five minutes' work of it" ought to be possible, but I didn't find any on the web.)

But the claim isn't that English nouns have exactly the same distributional properties as adjectives -- just that nouns can sometimes be attributive modifiers of other nouns. It's easy to find contexts where adjectives occur freely but nouns are highly restricted or impossible. Thus became __ allows adjectives (She became independent) and bare role nouns (She became president) but not bare nouns in general (not *She became monster, but She became a monster).

In contrast, it's easy to find examples showing that President Bush's phrase "the Democrat majority" does not involve a frame from which nouns are systematically excluded: {"the Labour majority"}, for example, is routine in the press discussions of British politics.

The problem with W's wording was not that it was ungrammatical, but that it was insulting. In general, you don't needle someone by using ungrammatical phrases, but by choosing grammatical phrases that are calculated to annoy. For example, it's a traditional schoolboy insult to insist on the female form of another boy's name -- say, "Paula" in place of "Paul" -- as a way to impugn the other's manliness. This usage is not in conflict with the word stock and the grammatical norms of English. It's simply childish and obnoxious, just as W's repeated misuse of "Democrat" is.

But my focus, in any case, was not the rhetoric of subtle political insults, but rather the sorry state of discourse on language among intellectuals today. Even if Prof. Hart was innocent in this case, the L.A Times reporter certainly was not.

This situation is an old concern, not to say hobby-horse, here -- a double handful of earlier posts on the subject:

No hurr in Nellyville? (4/4/2004)
The inner necessity of phonetic metalanguage (4/5/2004)
The passivator (4/6/2004)
No professor left behind (7/5/2004)
Hot features (8/24/2004)
The grammar of bullshit (3/9/2005)
Somewhere back of the teeth in Glasgow (3/14/2005)
Linguistics fails again (5/15/2006)
Thriving on confusion in the Guardian (5/24/2006)
Slurry (11/24/2006)
Does Julia Gillard know subjects from objects? (12/19/2006)

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 18, 2007 08:26 AM