March 26, 2007

Everyone are spared no mercy

While Mark was flying from San Francisco to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Paris, I was doing San Francisco to London and Edinburgh and back (yes, linguists lead exciting globe-trotting lives; you didn't know that already?), and in the British Airlines magazine High Life on the flight to London I saw this remarkably ungrammatical and semantically botched sentence at the end of a plot blurb about the Christopher Guest film For Your Consideration:

Everyone, from screenwriters to studio execs, are spared no mercy.

First, that's a subject-verb agreement error: it's Everyone is spared, not *Everyone are spared. (The whole reason the prescriptivists grumble about sentences like Everyone held their breath is that everyone is morphosyntactically singular but they is morphosyntactically plural. They're right about that, though wrong to conclude that therefore a sentence like Everyone thinks they are going to win must be ungrammatical.)

But second, there's a tacit overnegation in there. To be spared something is to not have it (with a conventional implicature that not having it is fortunate); and to be shown mercy is to have something cruel not happen to you. So there are three negations in there, and they reduce logically to one, which does not yield the intended truth conditions: "spared no mercy" = "not given no mercy" "given some mercy".

So the literal meaning of Everyone is spared no mercy is that mercy is shown to everyone. But in Christopher Guest's hilarious film mercy is not shown to everyone — it really does ridicule Hollywood types mercilessly and across the board, from screenwriters to agents to studio executives to actors to directors to publicists to TV entertainment reporters. It is obvious that the writer of the blurb meant to say either Everyone is shown no mercy (i.e., no one is shown any mercy) or less plausibly Everyone is spared mercy (same thing, i.e., everyone escapes receiving mercy), but instead says the exact opposite.

Such amazing errors pass by all of us every day, but somehow we screen them out and achieve understanding despite the content of our linguistic input. In fact hardly anyone but highly trained Language Log reporters ever notices the errors that occur. And even we probably miss a few when we're as jetlagged as Mark and I are right now.

Update: Natan Cliffer points out to me that there is a different sense of spare that is closer to meaning "give". I was thinking of sentences like I will spare you the details, which entails that you will not get the details (and that it's lucky for you). Natan points out sentences like Can you spare me some change?, which asks you if you can deprive yourself of some change and give it to me. Analogously, I suppose Can you spare me some mercy? could mean that I want you to hand over some of your mercy to me so that I have it. The trouble is, this sense seems to me to be one of those strange items like afford that only work in the scope of a modal of possibility, typically can. It seems to me, at least, that it doesn't work in simple clauses with no modal: I can't give a bum a quarter and describe my generosity by saying "I spared him a quarter," though I could say "I gave him a quarter because I thought I could spare it." We use spare on its own in a different way: Let me spare you the trouble means "Let me make it so that you do not have the trouble." And in the example I discuss above, there is no can.

That said, it is possible that I am wrong. Several people have mailed me attested examples of things like Spare them no mercy!, meaning "Show them no mercy" rather than "Cause them not to have no mercy, i.e., be merciful. Spare certainly is a confusing verb. What seems to have happened is that over the centuries it has evolved two antonymous meanings: "be merciful in causing not to have" (the sense I assumed was relevant, as in Spare me the sorrowful looks) and the meaning "be merciful in causing to have" (as with Brother, can you spare [me] a dime?). (Homework exercise: after a thorough study of the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the verb spare, write an essay explaining how this all happened.) If the writer of the piece I quoted did intend the second sense, then there is only one error: subject-verb agreement with everyone as subject. But that is certainly a doozy of an error on its own.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 26, 2007 12:04 AM